Reorganization of syntactic processing following left-hemisphere brain damage: does right-hemisphere activity preserve function?


The extent to which the human brain shows evidence of functional plasticity across the lifespan has been addressed in the context of pathological brain changes and, more recently, of the changes that take place during healthy ageing. Here we examine the potential for plasticity by asking whether a strongly left-lateralized system can successfully reorganize to the right-hemisphere following left-hemisphere brain damage. To do this, we focus on syntax, a key linguistic function considered to be strongly left-lateralized, combining measures of tissue integrity, neural activation and behavioural performance. In a functional neuroimaging study participants heard spoken sentences that differentially loaded on syntactic and semantic information. While healthy controls activated a left-hemisphere network of correlated activity including Brodmann areas 45/47 and posterior middle temporal gyrus during syntactic processing, patients activated Brodmann areas 45/47 bilaterally and right middle temporal gyrus. However, voxel-based morphometry analyses showed that only tissue integrity in left Brodmann areas 45/47 was correlated with activity and performance; poor tissue integrity in left Brodmann area 45 was associated with reduced functional activity and increased syntactic deficits. Activity in the right-hemisphere was not correlated with damage in the left-hemisphere or with performance. Reduced neural integrity in the left-hemisphere through brain damage or healthy ageing results in increased right-hemisphere activation in homologous regions to those left-hemisphere regions typically involved in the young. However, these regions do not support the same linguistic functions as those in the left-hemisphere and only indirectly contribute to preserved syntactic capacity. This establishes the unique role of the left hemisphere in syntax, a core component in human language.