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Title: Understanding language and attention : brain-based model and neurophysiological experiments
Author: Garagnani, Max
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2009
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This work concerns the investigation of the neuronal mechanisms at the basis of language acquisition and processing, and the complex interactions of language and attention processes in the human brain. In particular, this research was motivated by two sets of existing neurophysiological data which cannot be reconciled on the basis of current psycholinguistic accounts: on the one hand, the N400, a robust index of lexico-semantic processing which emerges at around 400ms after stimulus onset in attention demanding tasks and is larger for senseless materials (meaningless pseudowords) than for matched meaningful stimuli (words); on the other, the more recent results on the Mismatch Negativity (MMN, latency 100-250ms), an early automatic brain response elicited under distraction which is larger to words than to pseudowords. We asked what the mechanisms underlying these differential neurophysiological responses may be, and whether attention and language processes could interact so as to produce the observed brain responses, having opposite magnitude and different latencies. We also asked questions about the functional nature and anatomical characteristics of the cortical representation of linguistic elements. These questions were addressed by combining neurocomputational techniques and neuroimaging (magneto-encephalography, MEG) experimental methods. Firstly, a neurobiologically realistic neural-network model composed of neuron-like elements (graded response units) was implemented, which closely replicates the neuroanatomical and connectivity features of the main areas of the left perisylvian cortex involved in spoken language processing (i.e., the areas controlling speech output – left inferior-prefrontal cortex, including Broca’s area – and the main sensory input – auditory – areas, located in the left superior-temporal lobe, including Wernicke’s area). Secondly, the model was used to simulate early word acquisition processes by means of a Hebbian correlation learning rule (which reflects known synaptic plasticity mechanisms of the neocortex). The network was “taught” to associate pairs of auditory and articulatory activation patterns, simulating activity due to perception and production of the same speech sound: as a result, neuronal word representations distributed over the different cortical areas of the model emerged. Thirdly, the network was stimulated, in its “auditory cortex”, with either one of the words it had learned, or new, unfamiliar pseudoword patterns, while the availability of attentional resources was modulated by changing the level of non-specific, global cortical inhibition. In this way, the model was able to replicate both the MMN and N400 brain responses by means of a single set of neuroscientifically grounded principles, providing the first mechanistic account, at the cortical-circuit level, for these data. Finally, in order to verify the neurophysiological validity of the model, its crucial predictions were tested in a novel MEG experiment investigating how attention processes modulate event-related brain responses to speech stimuli. Neurophysiological responses to the same words and pseudowords were recorded while the same subjects were asked to attend to the spoken input or ignore it. The experimental results confirmed the model’s predictions; in particular, profound variability of magnetic brain responses to pseudowords but relative stability of activation to words as a function of attention emerged. While the results of the simulations demonstrated that distributed cortical representations for words can spontaneously emerge in the cortex as a result of neuroanatomical structure and synaptic plasticity, the experimental results confirm the validity of the model and provide evidence in support of the existence of such memory circuits in the brain. This work is a first step towards a mechanistic account of cognition in which the basic atoms of cognitive processing (e.g., words, objects, faces) are represented in the brain as discrete and distributed action-perception networks that behave as closed, independent systems.
Supervisor: Pulvermüller, Friedemann Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Neural network ; Language ; Neurophysiology ; Hebbian learning ; Cell assembly ; Simulation ; Connectivity ; Mismatch negativity ; Attention ; N400