Background: Verbal fluency is a measure of cognitive flexibility and word search strategies that is widely used to characterize impaired cognitive function. Despite the wealth of research on identifying and characterizing distinct aspects of verbal fluency, the anatomic and functional substrates of retrieval-related search and post-retrieval control processes still have not been fully elucidated. Methods: Twenty-one native English-speaking, healthy, right-handed, adult volunteers (mean age = 31 years; range = 21–45 years; 9 F) took part in a block-design functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study of free recall, covert word generation tasks when guided by phonemic (P), semantic-category (C), and context-based fill-in–the-blank sentence completion (S) cues. General linear model (GLM), Independent Component Analysis (ICA), and psychophysiological interaction (PPI) were used to further characterize the neural substrate of verbal fluency as a function of retrieval cue type. Results: Common localized activations across P, C, and S tasks occurred in the bilateral superior and left inferior frontal gyrus, left anterior cingulate cortex, bilateral supplementary motor area (SMA), and left insula. Differential task activations were centered in the occipital, temporal and parietal regions as well as the thalamus and cerebellum. The context-based fluency task, i.e., the S task, elicited higher differential brain activity in a lateralized frontal-temporal network typically engaged in complex language processing. P and C tasks elicited activation in limited pathways mainly within the left frontal regions. ICA and PPI results of the S task suggested that brain regions distributed across both hemispheres, extending beyond classical language areas, are recruited for lexical-semantic access and retrieval during sentence completion. Conclusion: Study results support the hypothesis of overlapping, as well as distinct, neural networks for covert word generation when guided by different linguistic cues. The increased demand on word retrieval is met by the concurrent recruitment of classical as well as non-classical language-related brain regions forming a large cognitive neural network. The retrieval-related search and post-retrieval control processes that subserve verbal fluency, therefore, reverberates across distinct functional networks as determined by respective task demands.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
- Cognitive Neuroscience
- Behavioral Neuroscience