Dynamic brain connectivity attuned to the complexity of relative clause sentences revealed by a single-trial analysis

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To explore the issue of how the human brain processes sentences with different levels of complexity, we sought to compare the neural substrates underlying the processing of Chinese subject-extracted relative clause (SRC) and object-extracted relative clause (ORC) sentences in a trial-by-trial fashion. Previous neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that the involvement of the left inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG) and the left superior temporal gyrus (LSTG) is critical for the processing of relative clause (RC) sentences. In this study, we employed independent component analysis (ICA) to decompose brain activity into a set of independent components. Then, the independent component maps were spatially normalized using a surface-based approach in order to further spatially correlate and match the equivalent components from individual participants. The selected equivalent components indicated that the LIFG and the LSTG were consistently engaged in sentence processing among the participants. Subsequently, we observed alterations in the functional coupling between the LIFG and the LSTG in response to SRCs and ORCs using a Granger causality analysis. Specifically, comprehending Chinese ORCs with a canonical word order only involved a unidirectional connection from the LIFG to the LSTG for the integration of lexical-syntactic information. On the other hand, comprehending Chinese SRCs required bi-directional connectivity between the LIFG and the LSTG to fulfill increased integration demands in reconstructing the argument hierarchy due to a non-canonical word order. Furthermore, through a single-trial analysis, the strength of the connectivity from the LIFG to the LSTG was found to be significantly correlated with the complexity of the SRC sentences as quantified by eye-tracking measures. These findings indicated that the effective connectivity from the LIFG to the LSTG played an important role in the comprehension of complex sentences and that enhanced strength of this connectivity might reflect increased integration demands and restructuring attempts during sentence processing. Taken together, the results of the present study reveal that interregional interaction in the brain network for sentence processing can be dynamically engaged in response to different levels of complexity and also shed some light on the interpretation of neuroimaging and behavioral evidence when accounting for the nature of sentence complexity during reading.

Original languageEnglish
Article number116920
StatePublished - 15 Aug 2020


  • Effective connectivity
  • Independent component analysis
  • Relative clause
  • Sentence comprehension
  • Single-trial analysis


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