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A brain perspective on language mechanisms: from discrete neuronal ensembles to serial order.
Pulvermuller, F.
Progress in Neurobiology, 67, 85-111.
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Progress in Neurobiology Language is constituted by discrete building blocks, sounds and words, which can be concatenated according to serial order principles. The neurobiological organization of these building blocks, in particular words, has been illuminated by recent metabolic and neurophysiological imaging studies. When humans process words of different kinds, various sets of cortical areas have been found to become active differentially. The old concept of two language centers processing all words alike must therefore be replaced by a model according to which words are organized as discrete distributed neuron ensembles that differ in their cortical topographies. The meaning of a word, more precisely aspects of its reference, may be crucial for determining which set of cortical areas becomes involved in its processing. Whereas the serial order of sounds constituting a word may be established by serially aligned sets of neurons called synfire chains, different mechanisms are necessary for establishing word order in sentences. The serial order of words may be organized by higher-order neuronal sets, called sequence detectors here, which are being activated by sequential excitation of neuronal sets representing words. Sets of sequence detectors are proposed to process aspects of the syntactic information contained in a sentence. Other syntactic rules can be related to general features of the dynamics of cortical activation and deactivation. These postulates about the brain mechanisms of language, which are rooted in principles known from neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, may provide a framework for theory-driven neuroscientific research on language.