A neuroanatomically grounded Hebbian-learning model of attention-language interactions in the human brain.
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Meaningful familiar stimuli and senseless unknown materials lead to different patterns of brain activation. A late major neurophysiological response indexing 'sense' is the negative component of event-related potential peaking at around 400 ms (N400), an event-related potential that emerges in attention-demanding tasks and is larger for senseless materials (e.g. meaningless pseudowords) than for matched meaningful stimuli (words). However, the mismatch negativity (latency 100-250 ms), an early automatic brain response elicited under distraction, is larger to words than to pseudowords, thus exhibiting the opposite pattern to that seen for the N400. So far, no theoretical account has been able to reconcile and explain these findings by means of a single, mechanistic neural model. We implemented a neuroanatomically grounded neural network model of the left perisylvian language cortex and simulated: (i) brain processes of early language acquisition and (ii) cortical responses to familiar word and senseless pseudoword stimuli. We found that variation of the area-specific inhibition (the model correlate of attention) modulated the simulated brain response to words and pseudowords, producing either an N400- or a mismatch negativity-like response depending on the amount of inhibition (i.e. available attentional resources). Our model: (i) provides a unifying explanatory account, at cortical level, of experimental observations that, so far, had not been given a coherent interpretation within a single framework; (ii) demonstrates the viability of purely Hebbian, associative learning in a multilayered neural network architecture; and (iii) makes clear predictions on the effects of attention on latency and magnitude of event-related potentials to lexical items. Such predictions have been confirmed by recent experimental evidence.
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