Do We Have a “Mental Syllabary” in the Brain? An fMRI Study

in Motor Control
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The present study combines functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and reaction time (RT) measurements to further elucidate the influence of syllable frequency and complexity on speech motor control processes, i.e., overt reading of pseudowords. Tying in with a recent fMRI-study of our group we focused on the concept of a mental syllabary housing syllable sized ready-made motor plans for high- (HF), but not low-frequency (LF) syllables. The RT-analysis disclosed a frequency effect weakened by a simultaneous complexity effect for HF-syllables. In contrast, the fMRI data revealed no effect of syllable frequency, but point to an impact of syllable structure: Compared with CV-items, syllables with a complex onset (CCV) yielded higher hemodynamic activation in motor “execution” areas (left sensorimotor cortex, right inferior cerebellum), which is at least partially compatible with our previous study. We discuss the role of the syllable in speech motor control.

Brendel and Ackermann are with Center of Neurology, University of Tübingen, Germany. Erb and Grodd are with Section Exp. MR of the CNS, University of Tübingen, Germany. Riecker is with the Department of Neurology, University of Ulm, Germany. Ziegler is with Clinical Neuropsychology Research Group (EKN), City-Hospital Munich-Bogenhausen, Germany.