Localization of electrophysiological responses to semantic and syntactic anomalies in language comprehension with MEG

Aneta Kielar, Lilia Panamsky, Kira A. Links, Jed A. Meltzer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


Syntactically and semantically anomalous words encountered during sentence comprehension are known to elicit dissociable electrophysiological responses, which are thought to reflect distinct aspects of language processing. However, the sources of these responses have not been well characterized. We used beamforming analysis of magnetoencephalography (MEG) data to map generators of electrophysiological responses to linguistic anomalies. Anomalous words occurred in the context of a sentence acceptability judgement task conducted in both visual and auditory modalities. Time-frequency analysis revealed that both kinds of violations elicited event-related synchronization (ERS) in the delta-theta frequency range (1-5. Hz), and desynchronization (ERD) in the alpha-beta range (8-30. Hz). In addition, these responses were differentially modulated by violation type and presentation modality. 1-5. Hz responses were consistently localized within medial prefrontal cortex and did not vary significantly across violation types, but were stronger for visual presentation. In contrast, 8-30. Hz ERD occurred in different regions for different violation types. For semantic violations the distribution was predominantly in the bilateral occipital cortex and left temporal and inferior frontal regions, and these effects did not differ for visual and auditory presentation. In contrast, syntactic responses were strongly affected by presentation modality. Under visual presentation, syntactic violations elicited bilateral 8-30. Hz ERD extending into dorsal parietal and frontal regions, whereas effects were much weaker and mostly statistically insignificant in the auditory modality. These results suggest that delta-theta ERS reflects generalized increases in working memory demands related to linguistic anomaly detection, while alpha-beta ERD reflects specific activation of cortical regions involved in distinct aspects of linguistic processing, such as semantic vs. phonological short-term memory. Beamforming analysis of time-domain average signals (ERFs) revealed an N400m effect for semantic anomalies in both modalities, localized to left superior temporal and posterior frontal regions, and a later P600-like effect for syntactic anomalies in both modalities, widespread over bilateral frontal, posterior temporal, and parietal regions. These results indicate that time-domain averaged responses and induced oscillatory responses have distinct properties, including localization and modality dependence, and likely reflect dissociable and complementary aspects of neural activity related to language comprehension and additional task-related processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)507-524
Number of pages18
StatePublished - Jan 5 2015


  • ERF
  • MEG
  • N400m
  • SAM beamforming
  • Semantic
  • Sentence comprehension
  • Syntax

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'Localization of electrophysiological responses to semantic and syntactic anomalies in language comprehension with MEG'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this