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Fluid intelligence is supported by the multiple-demand system not the language system


A set of frontoparietal brain regions—the multiple-demand (MD) system1,2—has been linked to fluid intelligence in brain imaging3,4 and in studies of patients with brain damage5,6,7. For example, the amount of damage to frontal or parietal, but not temporal, cortices predicts fluid intelligence deficit5. However, frontal and parietal lobes are structurally8 and functionally9,10 heterogeneous. They contain domain-general regions that respond across diverse tasks11,12, but also specialized regions that respond selectively during language processing13. Since language may be critical for complex thought14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24 (compare with refs 25,26), intelligence loss following damage to the frontoparietal cortex could have important contributions from damage to language-selective regions. To evaluate the relative contributions of MD versus language-selective regions, we employed large functional magnetic resonance imaging datasets to construct probabilistic maps of the two systems. We used these maps to weigh the volume of lesion (in each of 80 patients) falling within each system. MD-weighted, but not language-weighted, lesion volumes predicted fluid intelligence deficit (with the opposite pattern observed for verbal fluency), indicating that fluid intelligence is specifically tied to the MD system, and undermining claims that language is at the core of complex thought.

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Fig. 1: Anatomical distribution of lesions.
Fig. 2: Correlation of lesion volumes with postmorbid change in fluid intelligence.
Fig. 3: Correlation of lesion volumes with verbal fluency scores.


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A.W. was supported by Australian Research Council Fellowships (Discovery Early Career Researcher Award grant no. DE120100898 and Future Fellowship grant no. FT170100105) and an Australian Research Council Discovery Project research grant (DP12102835). J.D. was supported by the Medical Research Council (United Kingdom) intramural programme (grant no. SUAG/002/RG91365). E.F. was supported by an R00 award HD 057522 from National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and by grants ANR-11-LABX-0036 (Brain and Language Research Institute) and ANR-11-IDEX-0001-02 (A*MIDEX: Initiative d'excellence Aix-Marseille). We thank N. Dermody for help with analysis. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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E.F did the conceptualization, E.F. and A.W. did the methodology, A.W. did the formal analysis, E.F. and A.W. wrote the original draft of the paper, J.D., E.F. and A.W reviewed and edited the paper, A.W. did the visualization and E.F. and J.D. supervised. F.M. traced the patient lesions.

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Correspondence to Alexandra Woolgar or Evelina Fedorenko.

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Woolgar, A., Duncan, J., Manes, F. et al. Fluid intelligence is supported by the multiple-demand system not the language system. Nat Hum Behav 2, 200–204 (2018).

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