The effects of focal brain damage on sentence processing: An examination of the neurological organization of a mental module

D. Swinney, E. Zurif, Janet L Nicol

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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The effects of prior semantic context upon lexical access during sentence processing were examined for three groups of subjects: nonfluent agrammatic (Broca's) aphasic patients; fluent (Wernicke's) aphasic patients; and neurologically intact control patients. Subjects were asked to comprehend auditorily presented, structurally simple sentences containing lexical ambiguities, which were in a context strongly biased toward just one interpretation of that ambiguity. While listening to each sentence, subjects also had to perform a lexical decision task upon a visually presented letter string. For the fluent Wernicke's patients, as for the controls, lexical decisions for visual words related to each of the meanings of the ambiguity were facilitated. By contrast, agrammatic Broca's patients showed significant facilitation only for visual words related to the a priori most frequent interpretation of the ambiguity. On the basis of these data, we suggest that normal form-based word retrieval processes are crucially reliant upon the cortical tissue implicated in agrammatism, but that even the focal brain damage yielding agrammatism does not destroy the normally encapsulated form of word access. That is, we propose that in agrammatism, the modularity of word access during sentence comprehension is rendered less efficient but not lost. Additionally, we consider a number of broader issues involved in the use of pathological material to infer characteristics of the neurological organization of cognitive architecture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)25-37
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1989
Externally publishedYes


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology

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