Minimal phrase composition revealed by intracranial recordings

Elliot Murphy, Oscar Woolnough, Patrick S. Rollo, Zachary Roccaforte, Katrien Segaert, Peter Hagoort, Nitin Tandon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The ability to comprehend phrases is an essential integrative property of the brain. Here, we evaluate the neural processes that enable the transition from single-word processing to a minimal compositional scheme. Previous research has reported conflicting timing effects of composition, and disagreement persists with respect to inferior frontal and posterior temporal contributions. To address these issues, 19 patients (10 male, 9 female) implanted with penetrating depth or surface subdural intracranial electrodes, heard auditory recordings of adjective-noun, pseudoword-noun, and adjective-pseudoword phrases and judged whether the phrase matched a picture. Stimulus-dependent alterations in broadband gamma activity, low-frequency power, and phase-locking values across the language-dominant left hemisphere were derived. This revealed a mosaic located on the lower bank of the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), in which closely neighboring cortical sites displayed exclusive sensitivity to either lexicality or phrase structure, but not both. Distinct timings were found for effects of phrase composition (210-300 ms) and pseudoword processing (∼300-700 ms), and these were localized to neighboring electrodes in pSTS. The pars triangularis and temporal pole encoded anticipation of composition in broadband low frequencies, and both regions exhibited greater functional connectivity with pSTS during phrase composition. Our results suggest that the pSTS is a highly specialized region composed of sparsely interwoven heterogeneous constituents that encodes both lower and higher level linguistic features. This hub in pSTS for minimal phrase processing may form the neural basis for the human-specific computational capacity for forming hierarchically organized linguistic structures.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Linguists have claimed that the integration of multiple words into a phrase demands a computational procedure distinct from single-word processing. Here, we provide intracranial recordings from a large patient cohort, with high spatiotemporal resolution, to track the cortical dynamics of phrase composition. Epileptic patients volunteered to participate in a task in which they listened to phrases (red boat), word-pseudoword or pseudoword-word pairs (e.g., red fulg). At the onset of the second word in phrases, greater broadband high gamma activity was found in posterior superior temporal sulcus in electrodes that exclusively indexed phrasal meaning and not lexical meaning. These results provide direct, high-resolution signatures of minimal phrase composition in humans, a potentially species-specific computational capacity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3216-3227
Number of pages12
JournalThe Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number15
Early online date1 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - 13 Apr 2022

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2022 the authors.


  • auditory
  • language
  • semantics
  • phrase structure
  • human
  • Brain
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Broca Area
  • Language
  • Semantics
  • Brain Mapping
  • Linguistics
  • Female

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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