The Journal of Neuroscience, 35:3276-3284, 2015. PMCID: PMC4331639
Human thought and language rely on the brain’s ability to combine conceptual information. This fundamental process supports the construction of complex concepts from basic constituents. For example, both “jacket” and “plaid” can be represented as individual concepts, but they can also be integrated to form the more complex representation “plaid jacket.” Although this process is central to the expression and comprehension of language, little is known about its neural basis. Here we present evidence for a neuroanatomic model of conceptual combination from three experiments. We predicted that the highly integrative region of heteromodal association cortex in the angular gyrus would be critical for conceptual combination, given its anatomic connectivity and its strong association with semantic memory in functional neuroimaging studies. Consistent with this hypothesis, we found that the process of combining concepts to form meaningful representations specifically modulates neural activity in the angular gyrus of healthy adults, independent of the modality of the semantic content integrated. We also found that individual differences in the structure of the angular gyrus in healthy adults are related to variability in behavioral performance on the conceptual combination task. Finally, in a group of patients with neurodegenera-tive disease, we found that the degree of atrophy in the angular gyrus is specifically related to impaired performance on combinatorial processing. These converging anatomic findings are consistent with a critical role for the angular gyrus in conceptual combination.