Objective assessment of automatic language comprehension mechanisms in the brain: Novel E/MEG paradigm

Rasha Hyder*, Andreas Højlund, Mads Jensen, Karen Østergaard, Yury Shtyrov

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Assessing the brain activity related to language comprehension is required in a range of situations. Particularly in cases when subjects’ cooperation with instructions cannot be guaranteed (e.g., in neurological patients), a protocol is needed that could be independent from attention and behavioral tasks. In this study, we aimed at designing a novel approach for neuromagnetic recordings of brain activity which could allow for probing the neural foundations underpinning three key levels of speech comprehension: lexical, semantic, and (morpho)syntactic, without requiring active attention on speech input or any active task, while keeping the recording session duration as short as possible. To this end, we designed two different auditory paradigms using the same set of single word-based lexical, semantic, and syntactic contrasts: a modified version of the multifeature oddball paradigm and an equiprobable design. Combined magnetoencephalography/electroencephalography data were recorded form young, healthy participants, presented with these stimuli while watching a silent movie. Data from the equiprobable design yielded significant activations in temporal and inferior frontal areas associated with the lexical, semantic, and morphosyntactic contrasts. In turn, neural dissociations observed in the multifeature paradigm emerged mainly in temporal cortices, and were confined to the lexical and semantic conditions with a striking lack of any statistically significant effects for syntactic violations. Our findings indicate that, by employing the equiprobable design, a comprehensive range of key linguistic processes could be assessed in a passive, attention-free manner within a relatively short time (here, ~27 min), thus making this paradigm a time-efficient and patient-friendly tool.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13543
Number of pages18
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • cortex
  • EEG
  • lexicality
  • MEG
  • morphosyntax
  • semantics


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