Automatic and Controlled Semantic Retrieval: TMS Reveals Distinct Contributions of Posterior Middle Temporal Gyrus and Angular Gyrus

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UNLABELLED: Semantic retrieval involves both (1) automatic spreading activation between highly related concepts and (2) executive control processes that tailor this activation to suit the current context or goals. Two structures in left temporoparietal cortex, angular gyrus (AG) and posterior middle temporal gyrus (pMTG), are thought to be crucial to semantic retrieval and are often recruited together during semantic tasks; however, they show strikingly different patterns of functional connectivity at rest (coupling with the "default mode network" and "frontoparietal control system," respectively). Here, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was used to establish a causal yet dissociable role for these sites in semantic cognition in human volunteers. TMS to AG disrupted thematic judgments particularly when the link between probe and target was strong (e.g., a picture of an Alsatian with a bone), and impaired the identification of objects at a specific but not a superordinate level (for the verbal label "Alsatian" not "animal"). In contrast, TMS to pMTG disrupted thematic judgments for weak but not strong associations (e.g., a picture of an Alsatian with razor wire), and impaired identity matching for both superordinate and specific-level labels. Thus, stimulation to AG interfered with the automatic retrieval of specific concepts from the semantic store while stimulation of pMTG impaired semantic cognition when there was a requirement to flexibly shape conceptual activation in line with the task requirements. These results demonstrate that AG and pMTG make a dissociable contribution to automatic and controlled aspects of semantic retrieval.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: We demonstrate a novel functional dissociation between the angular gyrus (AG) and posterior middle temporal gyrus (pMTG) in conceptual processing. These sites are often coactivated during neuroimaging studies using semantic tasks, but their individual contributions are unclear. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation and tasks designed to assess different aspects of semantics (item identity and thematic matching), we tested two alternative theoretical accounts. Neither site showed the pattern expected for a "thematic hub" (i.e., a site storing associations between concepts) since stimulation disrupted both tasks. Instead, the data indicated that pMTG contributes to the controlled retrieval of conceptual knowledge, while AG is critical for the efficient automatic retrieval of specific semantic information.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15230-15239
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of neuroscience
Issue number46
Publication statusPublished - 18 Nov 2015

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Copyright © 2015 Davey et al.

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