Neural processing of nouns and verbs: the role of inflectional morphology.


Dissociations of nouns and verbs following brain damage have been interpreted as evidence for distinct neural substrates underlying different aspects of the language system. Some neuroimaging studies have supported this claim by finding neural differentiation for nouns and verbs [Brain 122 (1999) 2337] while others have argued against neural specialisation [Brain 119 (1996) 159; Brain 124 (2001) 1619]. We suggest that one reason why these inconsistencies may have arisen is because the morphological structure of nouns and verbs has been ignored. In an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study we test the hypothesis that the neural processing of nouns and verbs differs when they are inflected. We contrasted the processing of regularly inflected nouns (dogs) with regularly inflected verbs (hitting), and found that the LIFG was more strongly activated in processing regularly inflected verbs compared to regularly inflected nouns. Moreover, regions of LIFG that were more active in the fMRI study for inflected verbs partially overlapped with the lesions in patients who have particular problems with verb morphology. Taken together with previous studies, these results suggest that noun and verb stems do not differ in terms of their representation, but when verbs are morphologically complex they differentially engage those neural systems which are involved in processes of morpho-phonology and syntax.