There is a widespread assumption that there are a static set of ‘language regions’ in the brain. Yet, people still regularly produce familiar ‘formulaic’ expressions when those regions are severely damaged. This suggests that the neurobiology of language varies with the extent of word sequence learning and might not be fixed. We test the hypothesis that perceiving sentences is mostly supported by sensorimotor regions involved in speech production and not ‘language regions’ after overlearning. Twelve participants underwent two sessions of behavioural testing and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), separated by 15 days. During this period, they repeated two sentences 30 times each, twice a day. In both fMRI sessions, participants ‘passively’ listened to those two sentences and novel sentences. Lastly, they spoke novel sentences. Behavioural results confirm that participants overlearned sentences. Correspondingly, there was an increase or recruitment of sensorimotor regions involved in sentence production and a reduction in activity or inactivity for overlearned sentences in regions involved in listening to novel sentences. The global network organization of the brain changed by ~45%, mostly through lost connectivity. Thus, there was a profound reorganization of the neurobiology of speech perception after overlearning towards sensorimotor regions not considered in most contemporary models and away from the ‘language regions’ posited by those models. These same sensorimotor regions are generally preserved in aphasia and Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps explaining residual abilities with formulaic language. These and other results warrant reconsidering static neurobiological models of language.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience