Sensory Modality-Independent Activation of the Brain Network for Language

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The meaning of a sentence can be understood, whether presented in written or spoken form. Therefore, it is highly probable that brain processes supporting language comprehension are at least partly independent of sensory modality. To identify where and when in the brain language processing is independent of sensory modality, we directly compared neuromagnetic brain signals of 200 human subjects (102 males) either reading or listening to sentences. We used multiset canonical correlation analysis to align individual subject data in a way that boosts those aspects of the signal that are common to all, allowing us to capture word-by-word signal variations, consistent across subjects and at a fine temporal scale. Quantifying this consistency in activation across both reading and listening tasks revealed a mostly left-hemispheric cortical network. Areas showing consistent activity patterns included not only areas previously implicated in higher-level language processing, such as left prefrontal, superior and middle temporal areas, and anterior temporal lobe, but also parts of the control network as well as subcentral and more posterior temporal-parietal areas. Activity in this supramodal sentence-processing network starts in temporal areas and rapidly spreads to the other regions involved. The findings indicate not only the involvement of a large network of brain areas in supramodal language processing but also that the linguistic information contained in the unfolding sentences modulates brain activity in a word-specific manner across subjects.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The brain can extract meaning from written and spoken messages alike. This requires activity of both brain circuits capable of processing sensory modality-specific aspects of the input signals as well as coordinated brain activity to extract modality-independent meaning from the input. Using traditional methods, it is difficult to disentangle modality-specific activation from modality-independent activation. In this work, we developed and applied a multivariate methodology that allows for a direct quantification of sensory modality-independent brain activity, revealing fast activation of a wide network of brain areas, both including and extending beyond the core network for language.

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