Two brain areas called Broca's region and Wernicke's region serve as the main computing hubs underlying language processing, with dense bundles of nerve fibers linking the two, much like fiber optic cables connecting computer servers. But while it was known that Broca's and Wernicke's region are connected by upper and a lower white matter pathways, most research had focused on the nerve cells clustered inside the two language-processing regions themselves.
Working with patients suffering from language impairments because of a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, Wilsons' team used brain imaging and language tests to disentangle the roles played by the two pathways. Their findings are published in a recent issue of the scientific journal Neuron.
"If you have damage to the lower pathway, you have damage to the lexicon and semantics," Wilson said. "You forget the name of things, you forget the meaning of words. But surprisingly, you're extremely good at constructing sentences."
"With damage to the upper pathway, the opposite is true; patients name things quite well, they know the words, they can understand them, they can remember them, but when it comes to figuring out the meaning of a complex sentence, they are going to fail."