Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious: How the brain learns words never heard before

E. Paulesu, G. Vallar, M. Berlingeri, M. Signorini, P. Vitali, C. Burani, D. Perani, F. Fazio

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Vocabulary acquisition is such a major aspect of language learning in children, but also in adults when learning a foreign language, that a dedicated vocabulary learning device may exist within the language organ. To identify the relevant brain systems, we performed regional cerebral blood flow measurements in normal subjects while they were learning a list of neologisms or a list of word-nonword pairs. Structures implicated in phonological short-term memory (Broca's area, left temporo-parietal junction) were steadily activated during nonwords learning, while the left temporal lobe neocortical and paralimbic structures (parahippocampal region), associated with long-term memory, contributed to learning in a time-dependent manner, with maximal activation at the beginning of the process. The neural system specifically activated when learning new vocabulary was strongly lateralized to the left hemisphere. This evidence refines current models of memory function and supports theories which emphasise the importance of phonological competence in hemispheric dominance for language.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1368-1377
Number of pages10
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - May 1 2009


  • Activation
  • Episodic memory
  • Learning
  • Phonological buffer
  • Phonological short-term memory
  • Positron emission tomography
  • Vocabulary acquisition
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Neurology


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