Words’ meanings mapped in the brain

In the brain, language pops up everywhere.

All across the wrinkly expanse of the brain’s outer layer, a constellation of different regions handle the meaning of language, scientists report online April 27 in Nature.

One region that responds to “family,” “home” and “mother,” for example, rests in a tiny chunk of tissue on the right side of the brain, above and behind the ear. That region and others were revealed by an intricate new map that charts the location of hundreds of areas that respond to words with related meanings.

Such a detailed map hints that humans comprehend language in a way that’s much more complicated — and involves many more brain areas — than scientists previously thought, says Stanford University neuroscientist Russell Poldrack, who was not involved in the work.

In fact, he says, “these data suggest we need to rethink how the brain organizes meaning.”

Scientists knew that different concepts roused action in different parts of the brain, says study coauthor Jack Gallant, a computational neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley. But people generally thought that big hunks of the brain each dealt with different concepts separately: one region for concepts related to vision, for example, another for concepts related to emotion. And conventional wisdom said the left hemisphere was most important.

Previous studies, though, tested just single words or sentences, and made only rough estimates of where meaning showed up in the brain, Gallant says. That’s like looking at the world’s countries in Google maps, instead of zooming in to the street view.

So he and colleagues mapped the activity of some 60,000 to 80,000 pea-sized regions across the brain’s outer layer, or cerebral cortex, as people lay in a functional MRI machine and listened to stories from The Moth Radio Hour. (The program features people telling personal, narrative tales to a live audience.)

“People actually love this experiment,” Gallant says.

It stands out from others because the authors use “real life, complicated stories,” says Princeton University neuroscientist Uri Hasson. “That’s really meaningful to see how the brain operates.”

Gallant’s team used a computer program to decipher the meaning of every 1- to 2-second snippet of the stories and then cataloged where 985 concepts showed up in the brain. Meanings conveyed by different words didn’t just engage the left hemisphere, the team found, but instead switched on groups of nerve cells spread broadly across the brain’s surface. After mapping where meaning, or semantic content, was represented in the brain, the researchers figured out where individual words might show up. Often, the same word appeared in different locations. For instance, the word “top” turned up in a spot with clothing words, as well as in an area related to numbers and measurements.

The brain maps of the seven participants in the study looked remarkably similar, Gallant says. That could be due to common life experiences: All seven were raised and educated in Western societies. With so few people, the researchers can’t pick out any gender differences, he says, but ideally he’d like to repeat the experiment with 50 or 100 people.

For now, Gallant hopes the map can serve as a resource for other researchers. One day, the work could potentially help those with ALS or locked-in syndrome communicate ­— by decoding the words in a person’s thoughts. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle, Gallant says. Researchers would also need to devise a method for measuring brain activity that’s portable, unlike MRI machines. 

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