Phonological Working Memory for Words and Nonwords in Cerebral Cortex

Purpose

The primary purpose of this study was to identify the brain bases of phonological working memory (the short-term maintenance of speech sounds) using behavioral tasks analogous to clinically sensitive assessments of nonword repetition. The secondary purpose of the study was to identify how individual differences in brain activation were related to participants’ nonword repetition abilities.

Method

We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure neurophysiological response during a nonword discrimination task derived from standard clinical assessments of phonological working memory. Healthy adult control participants (N = 16) discriminated pairs of real words or nonwords under varying phonological working memory load, which we manipulated by parametrically varying the number of syllables in target (non)words. Participants’ cognitive and phonological abilities were also measured using standardized assessments.

Results

Neurophysiological responses in bilateral superior temporal gyrus, inferior frontal gyrus, and supplementary motor area increased with greater phonological working memory load. Activation in left superior temporal gyrus during nonword discrimination correlated with participants’ performance on standard clinical nonword repetition tests.

Conclusion

These results suggest that phonological working memory is related to the function of cortical structures that canonically underlie speech perception and production.

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