The effects of semantic category and knowledge type on lexical-semantic access: A PET Study

S. F. Cappa, D. Perani, T. Schnur, M. Tettamanti, F. Fazio

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Neuropsychological studies of patients with category-specific recognition disorders, as well as PET investigations of semantic category effects in visual recognition tasks, have led some authors to the hypothesis that visual-perceptual knowledge plays a crucial role in the recognition of natural items, such as animals, while functional-associative information is more important for the recognition of man-made tools. To study the cerebral correlates of the retrieval of different types of semantic knowledge about living and nonliving entities, we performed a PET experiment in which normal subjects were required to access visual- and functional-associative information related to visually presented words corresponding to animals and tools. The experimental conditions were the following: (1) Rest. (2) Baseline: letter detection in pseudo-words. (3) Animal, visual knowledge: decide whether the animal has a long or short tail with respect to the body. (4) Animal, associative knowledge: decide whether the animal is typically found in Italy. (5) Tool, visual knowledge: decide whether the object is longer than wider or vice versa. (6) Tool, functional knowledge: decide whether the object is typically used as a kitchen tool. Lexical-semantic access (all lexical conditions pooled) activated the prefrontal cortex on the left and the parietal-occipital junction and posterior cingulate cortex bilaterally. An analysis of the individual experimental conditions in comparison with the nonword baseline showed that accessing visual versus associative knowledge was associated with different activation patterns: predominantly frontal in the case of visual features, temporoparietal for associative knowledge. While the activation patterns involved similar areas for living and nonliving entities, in the case of the latter they were restricted to the left hemisphere. The analysis of main effects confirmed these findings: there were several significant differences in the visual- associative comparison, while category-related differences were less prominent. These findings indicate that the retrieval of different types of knowledge is associated with distinct patterns of brain activation; on the other hand, category-related differences were less evident than in picture matching and naming tasks.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)350-359
Number of pages10
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Nov 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Neurology


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