Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences


Loraine K. Obler

Committee Members

Roel Jonkers

Adam M. Brickman

Subject Categories

Cognitive Neuroscience | Psycholinguistics and Neurolinguistics | Speech and Hearing Science


lexical-semantics, dementia, embodied cognition, psycholinguistic variables, sensory-perceptual features, voxel-based morphometry


The ease with which we use the thousands of words in our vocabulary stands in stark contrast to our difficulty establishing how they are organized in our mind and brain. The breakdown of language due to cortical atrophy in primary progressive aphasia (PPA) creates conditions to study this organization at a cognitive and neurobiological level in that the three variants of this disease, namely non-fluent, logopenic, and semantic PPA, each bear their own signature of language-specific decline and cortical atrophy. As the impaired regions in each variant are linked to different lexical and semantic attributes of words, lexical decision performance of individuals with the distinct variants can reveal the conceptual and neural architecture of the lexicon through an anatomical-behavioral relationship. This dissertation investigated which lexical and semantic factors influence the structural degeneration of word processing in individuals with each variant of PPA through three studies that focused on the role of general semantic knowledge, psycholinguistic variables, and sensory-perceptual features, respectively.

In Study 1, 41 individuals with PPA (13 non-fluent, 14 logopenic, and 14 semantic) as well as healthy controls (N = 25) performed a lexical decision task that consisted of 355 real words, carefully controlled on a broad range of psycholinguistic and semantic variables, and 175 pseudowords matched with the real words on the psycholinguistic variables. Two additional non-verbal semantic tasks (Pyramids and Palm Trees test and Over-regular Object Test) were administered to assess semantic ability and its relation with lexical decision performance. Results showed that—contrary to diagnostic expectations for the PPA variants—all three groups of individuals with PPA scored below the performance of matched control participants. The lexical-decision performance across all individuals with PPA correlated with semantic ability, but this correlation was not significant when separately analyzed per diagnosis. These findings suggest that semantic ability plays an active role in word recognition, but is not essential to lexical-semantic processing.

In Study 2, the performance of the same participants was analyzed on a selected subset of the 355 words to examine the differential influence of the psycholinguistic factors lexical frequency, age of acquisition, and neighborhood density on lexical-semantic processing across the three diagnostic groups. The results demonstrated that lexical frequency has the largest influence on lexical-semantic processing, but that independent of that, age of acquisition and neighborhood density also play a role. The effect of these two variables becomes more salient dependent on the variant of PPA, accordant to the patterns of atrophy. That is, individuals with non-fluent and logopenic PPA experienced a neighborhood density effect consistent with atrophy in the inferior frontal and temporoparietal cortices, associated with lexical analysis and word form processing. By contrast, individuals with semantic PPA experienced an age of acquisition effect consistent with atrophy in the anterior temporal lobe which has been associated with semantic processing in previous literature. These findings suggest that the degeneration of lexical-semantic processing is affected by lexical factors—which relate to language-specific brain regions—in line with a hierarchical mental lexicon structure, such that a selective deficit at one of the levels of the mental lexicon results in distinctively expressed effects among psycholinguistic variables.

Study 3 employed voxel-based morphometry (VBM) to identify the association between cortical volume—measured through T1-weighted magnetic resonance images (MRI)—and lexical decision performance related to sensory-perceptual features in 37 of the individuals with PPA and 17 of the controls on a second subset of the 355 words. Results showed that at both behavioral and neurobiological levels, semantic sensory-perceptual features of words (a strong association with, e.g., sound or action) influence lexical decision performance across all three groups with PPA. The results highlight the roles of the right hemisphere, the cerebellum, and the anterior temporal lobe in processing various sensory-perceptual features of concepts. The anterior temporal lobe has been proposed to be a semantic hub which processes various sensory-perceptual features (‘spokes’) into a conceptual representation in the hub-and-spoke model. The current results confirm this hub-role of the anterior temporal lobe, as well as the link of the ‘spokes’ to sensory-perceptual brain regions, as proposed by the hypothesis of embodied cognition. Most importantly, the results suggest that the intensity of semantic processing in the anterior temporal lobe is regulated by the degree of association with sensory-perceptual information.

The current research presents novel evidence that lexical-semantic processing is influenced by a combination of lexical and semantic factors at both conceptual and neurobiological levels, which can become impaired in different ways in individuals with PPA based on a set of anatomical-behavioral relationships. In particular, this dissertation broke new ground in demonstrating that the intensity of semantic processing in the anterior temporal lobe depends on the degree of sensory-perceptual information of concepts, supporting both the hub-and-spoke model and the hypothesis of embodied cognition. As well, this dissertation established the independent effects of lexical frequency from age of acquisition and neighborhood density and their roles in lexical-semantic decline in PPA, supporting the theory of hierarchical distinctions between lexemes and their conceptual representations in the mental lexicon.