ResearchLatest: Study Reveals How Brain Networks Derive Meaning from Words

Latest: Study Reveals How Brain Networks Derive Meaning from Words

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03 July 2024- Using a novel technology for obtaining recordings from single neurons, a team of investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital, a founding member of the Mass General Brigham healthcare system, discovered a microscopic “thesaurus” that reflects how word meanings are represented by neurons in the human brain.

Published in Nature, this research opens the door to understanding how humans comprehend language and provides insights to help individuals with speech-related medical conditions.

“Humans possess an exceptional ability to extract nuanced meaning through language—when we listen to speech, we can comprehend the meanings of up to tens of thousands of words and do so seamlessly across remarkably diverse concepts and themes,” said senior author Ziv Williams, MD, a physician-investigator in the department of Neurosurgery at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of Neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School. “Yet, how the human brain processes language at the basic computational level of individual neurons has remained a challenge to understand.”

Williams and his colleagues set out to construct a detailed map of how neurons in the human brain represent word meanings—for example, how we represent the concept of animal when we hear the word cat and dog, and how we distinguish between the concept of a dog and a car.

“We also wanted to find how humans are able to process such diverse meanings during natural speech and through which we are able to rapidly comprehend the meanings of words across a wide array of sentences, stories, and narratives,” Williams said.

To start addressing these questions, the scientists used a novel technology that allowed them to simultaneously record the activities of up to a hundred neurons from the brain while people listened to sentences and short stories.

Using this new technique, the investigators discovered how neurons in the brain map words to particular meanings and how they distinguish certain meanings from others.

“For example, we found that while certain neurons preferentially activated when people heard words such as ‘ran’ or ‘jumped’, which reflect actions, other neurons preferentially activated when hearing words that have emotional connotations, such as ‘happy’ or ‘sad’,” said Williams. “Moreover, when looking at all of the neurons together, we could start building a detailed picture of how word meanings are represented in the brain.”

Also Reading: The Healing Power of Books: How Reading Boosts Mental Health

To comprehend language, though, it is not enough to only understand the meaning of words, but also to accurately follow their meanings within sentences. For example, most people can rapidly tell the correct meaning of words such as “sun” and “son” or “see” and “sea” when used in a sentence, even though the words sound exactly the same.

Lastly, and perhaps most excitingly, the researchers found that, by recording a relatively small number of brain neurons, they could reliably predict the meanings of words as they were heard in real-time during speech. That is, based on the activities of the neurons, the team could determine the general ideas and concepts experienced by an individual as they were being comprehended during speech.

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