Syntactic unification operations are reflected in oscillatory dynamics during online sentence comprehension

MCM Bastiaansen, L. Magyari, P. Hagoort

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


There is growing evidence suggesting that synchronization changes in the oscillatory neuronal dynamics in the EEG or MEG reflect the transient coupling and uncoupling of functional networks related to different aspects of language comprehension. In this work, we examine how sentence-level syntactic unification operations are reflected in the oscillatory dynamics of the MEG. Participants read sentences that were either correct, contained a word category violation, or were constituted of random word sequences devoid of syntactic structure. A time–frequency analysis of MEG power changes revealed three types of effects. The first type of effect was related to the detection of a (word category) violation in a syntactically structured sentence, and was found in the alpha and gamma frequency bands. A second type of effect was maximally sensitive to the syntactic manipulations: A linear increase in beta power across the sentence was present for correct sentences, was disrupted upon the occurrence of a word category violation, and was absent in syntactically unstructured random word sequences. We therefore relate this effect to syntactic unification operations. Thirdly, we observed a linear increase in theta power across the sentence for all syntactically structured sentences. The effects are tentatively related to the building of a working memory trace of the linguistic input. In conclusion, the data seem to suggest that syntactic unification is reflected by neuronal synchronization in the lower-beta frequency band.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1333-1347
JournalJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes


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