Electrophysiological signatures of phonological and semantic maintenance in sentence repetition

Jed A. Meltzer, Aneta Kielar, Lilia Panamsky, Kira A. Links, Tiffany Deschamps, Rosie C. Leigh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Verbal short-term memory comprises resources for phonological rehearsal, which have been characterized anatomically, and for maintenance of semantic information, which are less understood. Sentence repetition tasks tap both processes interactively. To distinguish brain activity involved in phonological vs. semantic maintenance, we recorded magnetoencephalography during a sentence repetition task, incorporating three manipulations emphasizing one mechanism over the other. Participants heard sentences or word lists and attempted to repeat them verbatim after a 5-second delay. After MEG, participants completed a cued recall task testing how much they remembered of each sentence. Greater semantic engagement relative to phonological rehearsal was hypothesized for 1) sentences vs. word lists, 2) concrete vs. abstract sentences, and 3) well recalled vs. poorly recalled sentences. During auditory perception and the memory delay period, we found highly left-lateralized activation in the form of 8–30 Hz event-related desynchronization. Compared to abstract sentences, concrete sentences recruited posterior temporal cortex bilaterally, demonstrating a neural signature for the engagement of visual imagery in sentence maintenance. Maintenance of arbitrary word lists recruited right hemisphere dorsal regions, reflecting increased demands on phonological rehearsal. Sentences that were ultimately poorly recalled in the post-test also elicited extra right hemisphere activation when they were held in short-term memory, suggesting increased demands on phonological resources. Frontal midline theta oscillations also reflected phonological rather than semantic demand, being increased for word lists and poorly recalled sentences. These findings highlight distinct neural resources for phonological and semantic maintenance, with phonological maintenance associated with stronger oscillatory modulations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)302-314
Number of pages13
StatePublished - Aug 1 2017


  • Beta oscillations
  • Language
  • MEG
  • Short-term memory
  • Theta oscillations
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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