Language comprehension entails more than simply decoding the literal meaning of an utterance: our interpretation is powerfully shaped by our knowledge of the intent of the speaker, the linguistic and social context, and our general world knowledge. This ability to exploit speaker intent and background knowledge to go beyond the literal meaning of the sentence is referred to as ?pragmatics?, and is at the core of communicative success. Pragmatic deficits characterize numerous developmental disorders, like autism spectrum disorders or Social Communication Disorder, and commonly arise in individuals with acquired frontal lobe or right hemisphere damage due to stroke, head injury, or degeneration. Given that successful communication is key to our ability to form personal and professional relationships, it is critical to develop effective diagnostics and treatments for individuals suffering from communication disorders. An understanding of the neural and cognitive mechanisms that underlie pragmatic processing is an essential prerequisite. Using a powerful functional localization approach in fMRI and adhering to the current standards of reproducible and transparent science, we here propose to systematically examine the contributions of three communication-relevant networks ? the language network, the social cognition network, and the executive-function network ? to pragmatic reasoning, and the interactions among these networks through a synergistic combination of traditional task-based paradigms (Aim 1), naturalistic cognition paradigms (Aims 2 and 3), and dynamic network modeling (Aim 3).
In Aim 1, we examine the responses in the language, social, and executive networks to diverse pragmatic phenomena, like humor, metaphor, and white lies.
In Aim 2, we examine stimulus-related activity in each of our target networks during the processing of rich naturalistic linguistic materials. And in Aim 3, we use dynamic network modeling to examine the interactions between networks during linguistic processing. This work will profoundly impact both i) basic science, by providing a rich characterization of the relative importance of the key networks, the division of labor among them, and the nature of their interactions, and ii) clinical practice, by providing a solid theoretical framework and a robust empirical foundation for understanding disorders of communication. In summary, this research will shed new critical light on the neural architecture of pragmatic reasoning and lay the foundation for future work aimed at probing the nature of communicative failures in pragmatic disorders of diverse etiologies.

Public Health Relevance

to public health: Successful communication is at the core of our ability to form personal and professional relationships. Between 6 and 8 million Americans suffer from some form of language / communication disorders, including developmental ones, like autism or Social Communication Disorder, and acquired ones, like aphasia due to stroke, head injury, or degeneration. Using functional MRI to probe core brain networks that support linguistic, social and working memory abilities, this research will shed critical new light on the functional architecture of our communicative abilities and have important implications for the development of efficient therapies.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
Research Project (R01)
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Cooper, Judith
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Other Basic Sciences
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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