Temporal and frontal systems in speech comprehension: an fMRI study of past tense processing.


A prominent issue in cognitive neuroscience is whether language function is instantiated in the brain as a single undifferentiated process, or whether regions of relative specialisation can be demonstrated. The contrast between regular and irregular English verb inflection has been pivotal to this debate. Behavioural dissociations related to different lesion sites in brain-damaged patients suggest that processing regular and irregular past tenses involves different neural systems. Using event-related fMRI in a group of unimpaired young adults, we contrast processing of spoken regular and irregular past tense forms in a same-different judgement task, shown in earlier research with patients to engage left hemisphere language systems. An extensive fronto-temporal network, linking anterior cingulate (ACC), left inferior frontal cortex (LIFC) and bilateral superior temporal gyrus (STG), was preferentially activated for regularly inflected forms. Access to meaning from speech is supported by temporal cortex, but additional processing is required for forms that end in regular inflections, which differentially engage LIFC processes that support morpho-phonological segmentation and grammatical analysis.