Language is our signature human cognitive skill. Yet, many critical questions regarding the brain basis of language and the role of specific cortical regions in linguistic behavior remain unanswered. Recent research demonstrated high anatomical and functional variability in human brains, thus suggesting that traditional group analyses - applied in the vast majority of the past language studies - may not be optimal. Over the last few years, I developed new techniques - adopted from fMRI methods that have been successful in vision research - to functionally "localize" brain regions sensitive to high-level linguistic processing. This approach has already yielded some important results. For example, I demonstrated that regions that support high-level linguistic processing show little or no response to several non-linguistic functions that have been previously argued to share cognitive and neural machinery with language, including arithmetic processing, general working memory, general cognitive control or musical processing. Furthermore, I discovered that lexical and syntactic representations are tightly integrated in the human mind and brain: any brain region that is sensitive to word-level meanings is also sensitive to combinatorial (i.e., syntactic and compositional semantic) information. Over the next three years, I will build on these results, as well as on prior work in psycholinguistics and theoretical linguistics, to understand the computations we perform and the representations we build during language processing, and to provide a detailed characterization of the brain regions underlying these computations and representations. My work will remain centered around two fundamental questions about the functional architecture of the language system: i) does language processing engage domain-specific mechanisms or does it rely on more general-purpose machinery;and ii) what is the internal functional organization of the language system? In addition to characterizing the language system in healthy individuals, I am now beginning to examine changes in the cortical organization of language in developmental and acquired language disorders.

Public Health Relevance

The ability to reliably localize language functions with fMRI will help in pre-operative planning for patients with tumors and epilepsy. Successful pre-operative localization of critical language regions will reduce the average surgery duration and facilitate the post-operative recovery process. Understanding the language deficits in developmental and acquired language disorders will lead to better diagnosis and treatment tools.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Research Transition Award (R00)
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No Study Section (in-house review) (NSS)
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Freund, Lisa S
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Massachusetts General Hospital
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Blank, Idan; Balewski, Zuzanna; Mahowald, Kyle et al. (2016) Syntactic processing is distributed across the language system. Neuroimage 127:307-23
Fedorenko, Evelina; Varley, Rosemary (2016) Language and thought are not the same thing: evidence from neuroimaging and neurological patients. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1369:132-53
Fedorenko, Evelina; Scott, Terri L; Brunner, Peter et al. (2016) Neural correlate of the construction of sentence meaning. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113:E6256-E6262
Fedorenko, Evelina; Hsieh, Po-Jang; Balewski, Zuzanna (2015) A possible functional localizer for identifying brain regions sensitive to sentence-level prosody. Lang Cogn Neurosci 30:120-148
Fedorenko, Evelina; Fillmore, Paul; Smith, Kimberly et al. (2015) The superior precentral gyrus of the insula does not appear to be functionally specialized for articulation. J Neurophysiol 113:2376-82
Fedorenko, Evelina; Thompson-Schill, Sharon L (2014) Reworking the language network. Trends Cogn Sci 18:120-6