Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Origin of language from cortical motor systems - evidence from fMRI imaging

Meister and Iacoboni offer some interesting observations supporting the idea that language evolved as an exaptation from motor cortical systems. Here is some of their text and a central figure from the paper.
It has been suggested that cortical neural systems for language evolved from motor cortical systems, in particular from those fronto-parietal systems responding also to action observation. While previous studies have shown shared cortical systems for action – or action observation - and language, they did not address the question of whether linguistic processing of visual stimuli occurs only within a subset of fronto-parietal areas responding to action observation. If this is true, the hypothesis that language evolved from fronto-parietal systems matching action execution and action observation would be strongly reinforced

...functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used while subjects watched video stimuli of hand-object-interactions and control photo stimuli of the objects and performed linguistic (conceptual and phonological), and perceptual tasks. Since stimuli were identical for linguistic and perceptual tasks, differential activations had to be related to task demands. The results revealed that the linguistic tasks activated left inferior frontal areas that were subsets of a large bilateral fronto-parietal network activated during action perception. Not a single cortical area demonstrated exclusive – or even simply higher - activation for the linguistic tasks compared to the action perception task.

The results show that linguistic tasks do not only share common neural representations but essentially activate a subset of the action observation network if identical stimuli are used. Our findings strongly support the evolutionary hypothesis that fronto-parietal systems matching action execution and observation were co-opted for language, a process known as exaptation.

Figure 3. a) cortical networks activated by the decision task relating to action observation vs rest (Vd-Perc vs rest, red) and action observation vs perceptual decisions on photos of the same objects (Vd-Perc vs Ph-Perc, blue). The large bihemispheric networks found for both contrasts were very similar, suggesting that the fMRI activations found here mainly were related to action observation and not to processes of decision making or object perception required during these tasks, as well. b) Cortical networks activated during the phonological (blue) and the conceptual decision task (red) on photos of manipulable objects. The networks activated by these two linguistic tasks were entirely part of the action observation network depicted in Fig. 3a, in accordance with the hypothesis that development of language out of the mirror neuron system was driven by a process of exaptation.

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