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Open Access Research article

Representation of the verb's argument-structure in the human brain

Ramin Assadollahi12 and Brigitte S Rockstroh1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychology, University of Konstanz, 78457 Konstanz, Germany

2 ExB Communication Systems GmbH, 80333 Munich, Germany

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BMC Neuroscience 2008, 9:69  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-9-69

Published: 21 July 2008



A verb's argument structure defines the number and relationships of participants needed for a complete event. One-argument (intransitive) verbs require only a subject to make a complete sentence, while two- and three-argument verbs (transitives and ditransitives) normally take direct and indirect objects. Cortical responses to verbs embedded into sentences (correct or with syntactic violations) indicate the processing of the verb's argument structure in the human brain. The two experiments of the present study examined whether and how this processing is reflected in distinct spatio-temporal cortical response patterns to isolated verbs and/or verbs presented in minimal context.


The magnetoencephalogram was recorded while 22 native German-speaking adults saw 130 German verbs, presented one at a time for 150 ms each in experiment 1. Verb-evoked electromagnetic responses at 250 – 300 ms after stimulus onset, analyzed in source space, were higher in the left middle temporal gyrus for verbs that take only one argument, relative to two- and three-argument verbs. In experiment 2, the same verbs (presented in different order) were preceded by a proper name specifying the subject of the verb. This produced additional activation between 350 and 450 ms in or near the left inferior frontal gyrus, activity being larger and peaking earlier for one-argument verbs that required no further arguments to form a complete sentence.


Localization of sources of activity suggests that the activation in temporal and frontal regions varies with the degree by which representations of an event as a part of the verbs' semantics are completed during parsing.