Brain correlates of action word memory

Zubaida Shebani, Francesca Carota, Olaf Hauk, James Rowe, Lawrence W. Barsalou, Rosario Tomasello, Friedemann Pulvermüller

Research output: Working paperPreprint


When understanding language semantically related to actions, the motor cortex is active and may be sensitive to semantic information, for example about the body-part-relationship of displayed action-related words. Conversely, movements of the hands or feet can impair memory performance for arm- and leg-related action words respectively, suggesting that the role of motor systems extends to verbal working memory. Here, we studied brain correlates of verbal memory load for action-related words using event-related fMRI during the encoding and memory maintenance of word lists. Seventeen participants saw either four identical or four different words from the same category, semantically related to actions typically performed either with the arms or with the legs. After a variable delay of 4-14 seconds, they performed a nonmatching-to-sample task. Hemodynamic activity related to the information load of words at presentation was most prominent in left temporo-occipital and bilateral posterior-parietal areas. In contrast, larger demand on verbal memory maintenance produced greater activation in left premotor and supplementary motor cortex, along with posterior-parietal areas, indicating that verbal memory circuits for action-related words include the cortical action system. Somatotopic memory load effects of arm- and leg-related words were not present at the typical precentral loci where earlier studies had found such word-category differences in reading tasks, although traces of somatotopic semantic mappings were observed at more anterior cortical regions. These results support a neurocomputational model of distributed action-perception circuits (APCs), according to which language understanding is manifest as full ignition of APCs, whereas working memory is realized as reverberant activity gradually receding to multimodal prefrontal and lateral temporal areas.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Sept 10 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • neuroscience

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