Behavioral research has demonstrated three major components of the lexical-semantic processing system: automatic activation of semantic representations, strategic retrieval of semantic representations, and inhibition of competitors. However, these component processes are inherently conflated in explicit lexical-semantic decision tasks typically used in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research. Here, we combine the logic of behavioral priming studies and the neurophysiological phenomenon of fMRI priming to dissociate the neural bases of automatic and strategic lexical-semantic processes across a series of three studies. A single lexical decision task was used in all studies, with stimulus onset asynchrony or linguistic relationship between prime and target being manipulated. Study 1 demonstrated automatic semantic priming in the left mid-fusiform gyrus (mid-FFG) and strategic semantic priming in five regions: left middle temporal gyrus (MTG), bilateral anterior cingulate, anterior left inferior prefrontal cortex (aLIPC), and posterior LIPC (pLIPC). These priming effects were explored in more detail in two subsequent studies. Study 2 replicated the automatic priming effect in mid-FFG and demonstrated that automatic priming in this region is preferential for the semantic domain. Study 3 demonstrated a neural dissociation in regions contributing to the strategic semantic priming effect. Strategic semantic facilitation was observed in the aLIPC and MTG, whereas strategic semantic inhibition was observed in the pLIPC and anterior cingulate. These studies provide reproducible evidence for a neural dissociation between three well established components of the lexical-semantic processing system.

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Published in Journal of Neuroscience, v. 26, no. 24, p. 6532-6523.

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