Peer-Reviewed Articles

Distinct neural mechanisms for action access and execution in the human brain: insights from an fMRI study

Cerebral Cortex, Volume 34, Issue 4, bhae163 (2024)


ABSTRACT: Goal-directed actions are fundamental to human behavior, whereby inner goals are achieved through mapping action representations to motor outputs. The left premotor cortex (BA6) and the posterior portion of Broca’s area (BA44) are two modulatory poles of the action system. However, how these regions support the representation-output mapping within the system is not yet understood. To address this, we conducted a finger-tapping functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment using action categories ranging from specific to general. Our study found distinct neural behaviors in BA44 and BA6 during action category processing and motor execution. During access of action categories, activity in a posterior portion of BA44 (pBA44) decreased linearly as action categories became less specific. Conversely, during motor execution, activity in BA6 increased linearly with less specific categories. These findings highlight the differential roles of pBA44 and BA6 in action processing. We suggest that pBA44 facilitates access to action categories by utilizing motor information from the behavioral context while the premotor cortex integrates motor information to execute the selected action. This finding enhances our understanding of the interplay between prefrontal cortical regions and premotor cortex in mapping action representation to motor execution and, more in general, of the cortical mechanisms underlying human behavior.

Embodied negation and levels of concreteness: A TMS study on German and Italian language processing. 

Brain Research, 147523 (2021)


ABSTRACT: According to the embodied cognition perspective, linguistic negation may block the motor simulations induced by language processing. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was applied to the left primary motor cortex (hand area) of monolingual Italian and German healthy participants during a rapid serial visual presentation of sentences from their own language. In these languages, the negative particle is located at the beginning and at the end of the sentence, respectively. The study investigated whether the interruption of the motor simulation processes, accounted for by reduced motor evoked potentials (MEPs), takes place similarly in two languages differing on the position of the negative marker. Different levels of sentence concreteness were also manipulated to investigate if negation exerts generalized effects or if it is affected by the semantic features of the sentence. Our findings indicate that negation acts as a block on motor representations, but independently from the language and words concreteness level.

Language and action in Broca’s area: Computational differentiation and cortical segregation.

Brain and Cognition 147, 105651 (2020)


ABSTRACT: Actions have been proposed to follow hierarchical principles similar to those hypothesized for language syntax. These structural similarities are claimed to be reflected in the common involvement of certain neural populations of Broca’s area, in the Inferior Frontal Gyrus (IFG). In this position paper, we follow an influential hypothesis in linguistic theory to introduce the syntactic operation Merge and the corresponding motor/conceptual interfaces. We argue that actions hierarchies do not follow the same principles ruling language syntax. We propose that hierarchy in the action domain lies in predictive processing mechanisms mapping sensory inputs and statistical regularities of action-goal relationships. At the cortical level, distinct Broca’s subregions appear to support different types of computations across the two domains. We argue that anterior BA44 is a major hub for the implementation of the syntactic operation Merge. On the other hand, posterior BA44 is recruited in selecting premotor mental representations based on the information provided by contextual signals. This functional distinction is corroborated by a recent meta-analysis (Papitto, Friederici, & Zaccarella, 2020). We conclude by suggesting that action and language can meet only where the interfaces transfer abstract computations either to the external world or to the internal mental world.

Functional neuroanatomy of language without speech: An ALE meta-analysis of sign language.

Human Brain Mapping 42 (3), 699-712 (2020)


ABSTRACT: Sign language (SL) conveys linguistic information using gestures instead of sounds. Here, we apply a meta‐analytic estimation approach to neuroimaging studies (N = 23; subjects = 316) and ask whether SL comprehension in deaf signers relies on the same primarily left‐hemispheric cortical network implicated in spoken and written language (SWL) comprehension in hearing speakers. We show that: (a) SL recruits bilateral fronto‐temporo‐occipital regions with strong left‐lateralization in the posterior inferior frontal gyrus known as Broca’s area, mirroring functional asymmetries observed for SWL. (b) Within this SL network, Broca’s area constitutes a hub which attributes abstract linguistic information to gestures. (c) SL‐specific voxels in Broca’s area are also crucially involved in SWL, as confirmed by meta‐analytic connectivity modeling using an independent large‐scale neuroimaging database. This strongly suggests that the human brain evolved a lateralized language network with a supramodal hub in Broca’s area which computes linguistic information independent of speech.

The topographical organization of motor processing: An ALE meta-analysis on six action domains and the relevance of Broca’s region.

NeuroImage 206, 116321 (2019)


ABSTRACT: Action is a cover term used to refer to a large set of motor processes differing in domain specificities (e.g. execution or observation). Here we review neuroimaging evidence on action processing (N = 416; Subjects = 5912) using quantitative Activation Likelihood Estimation (ALE) and Meta-Analytic Connectivity Modeling (MACM) approaches to delineate the functional specificities of six domains: (1) Action Execution, (2) Action Imitation, (3) Motor Imagery, (4) Action Observation, (5) Motor Learning, (6) Motor Preparation. Our results show distinct functional patterns for the different domains with convergence in posterior BA44 (pBA44) for execution, imitation and imagery processing. The functional connectivity network seeding in the motor-based localized cluster of pBA44 differs from the connectivity network seeding in the (language-related) anterior BA44. The two networks implement distinct cognitive functions. We propose that the motor-related network encompassing pBA44 is recruited when processing movements requiring a mental representation of the action itself.


Cleaning up the brickyard: How theory and methodology affect experimental outcome in cognitive neuroscience of language


ABSTRACT: The capacity for language is a defining property of our species, yet despite decades of research, evidence on its neural basis is still mixed and a generalized consensus is difficult to achieve. We suggest that this is partly caused by researchers defining “language” in radically different ways, with focus on a wide range of phenomena, properties, and levels of investigation. Accordingly, there is very little agreement amongst cognitive neuroscientists of language on the operationalization of fundamental concepts to be investigated in neuroscientific experiments. This paper reviews chains of derivation in the cognitive neuroscience of language, focusing on how the hypothesis under consideration is defined by a combination of theoretical and methodological assumptions. We first attempt to disentangle the complex relationship between linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience in the field. We then focus on how conclusions that can be drawn from any experiment are inherently constrained not just by the research techniques and analyses adopted, but also by the theoretical starting point of the study: auxiliary assumptions, both theoretical and methodological, on which the validity of conclusions drawn rely. These issues are discussed in the context of classical experimental manipulations, as well as study designs that employ novel approaches such as naturalistic stimuli and computational methods. We conclude by proposing that a highly interdisciplinary field such as the cognitive neuroscience of language requires researchers to form explicit statements concerning the theoretical definitions, methodological choices, and other constraining factors involved in their work.

Embodied negation and levels of concreteness: A TMS study on German and Italian language processing. 

arXiv:2106.04123 (2021)



Typology and structure of the embodied negation: a TMS study.

Supervised by Lugli, L., Borghi, A. M., Pellicano, A., & Binkofski, F.

Master, Alma Mater Studiorum - Università di Bologna, Italy (2018)