Effects of TMS on different stages of motor and non-motor verb processing in the primary motor cortex

  • Papeo L
  • Vallesi A
  • Isaja A
 et al. 
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The embodied cognition hypothesis suggests that motor and premotor areas are automatically and necessarily involved in understanding action language, as word conceptual representations are embodied. This transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) study explores the role of the left primary motor cortex in action-verb processing. TMS-induced motor-evoked potentials from right-hand muscles were recorded as a measure of M1 activity, while participants were asked either to judge explicitly whether a verb was action-related (semantic task) or to decide on the number of syllables in a verb (syllabic task). TMS was applied in three different experiments at 170, 350 and 500 ms post-stimulus during both tasks to identify when the enhancement of M1 activity occurred during word processing. The delays between stimulus onset and magnetic stimulation were consistent with electrophysiological studies, suggesting that word recognition can be differentiated into early (within 200 ms) and late (within 400 ms) lexical-semantic stages, and post-conceptual stages. Reaction times and accuracy were recorded to measure the extent to which the participants' linguistic performance was affected by the interference of TMS with M1 activity. No enhancement of M1 activity specific for action verbs was found at 170 and 350 ms post-stimulus, when lexical-semantic processes are presumed to occur (Experiments 1-2). When TMS was applied at 500 ms post-stimulus (Experiment 3), processing action verbs, compared with non-action verbs, increased the M1-activity in the semantic task and decreased it in the syllabic task. This effect was specific for hand-action verbs and was not observed for action-verbs related to other body parts. Neither accuracy nor RTs were affected by TMS. These findings suggest that the lexical-semantic processing of action verbs does not automatically activate the M1. This area seems to be rather involved in post-conceptual processing that follows the retrieval of motor representations, its activity being modulated (facilitated or inhibited), in a top-down manner, by the specific demand of the task.

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