The role of the anterior temporal lobes in the comprehension of concrete and abstract words: rTMS evidence

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    Conceptual knowledge allows us to bring meaning to our world. Studies of semantic dementia (SD) patients and some functional neuroimaging studies indicate that the anterior temporal lobes, bilaterally, are a core neural substrate for the formation of conceptual representations. The majority of SD patients (who have circumscribed atrophy of the anterior temporal lobes) have better comprehension of concrete than abstract words. However, this finding remains controversial, as some individual SD patients have exhibited reverse imageability effects, i.e., relative preservation of abstract knowledge. This would imply that the anterior temporal lobes are particularly crucial for processing sensory aspects of semantic knowledge, which are an important part of concrete but not abstract concepts. To adjudicate on this debate, we used offline, low-frequency, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to disrupt neural processing temporarily in the left or right temporal poles (TPs). We examined this effect using a synonym judgement task, comprising high, medium and low imageability items, which we have previously employed with a case-series of SD patients. The time required to make semantic decisions was slowed considerably, particularly for low imageability items, consistent with the pattern we observed in SD. These results confirm that both TPs make a critical contribution to semantic processing, even for abstract concepts that do not have strong sensory representations. © 2009 Elsevier Srl. All rights reserved.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1104-1110
    Number of pages6
    Issue number9
    Publication statusPublished - Oct 2009


    • Anterior temporal lobes
    • Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation
    • Semantic cognition
    • Word imageability


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