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Poster D50, Thursday, November 9, 6:15 – 7:30 pm, Harborview and Loch Raven Ballrooms

Grammatical gender in the aging brain: an ERP study of prediction and integration in a sentence context

Matthew Wood1, Virdiana Estrada2, Alondra Chaire3, Nicole Y.Y. Wicha1,4;1University of Texas at San Antonio, 2The University of Texas Medical Branch, 3Otto-von-Guericke-Universität Magdeburg Magdeburg, Germany, 4UTSA Neurosciences Institute

Building evidence indicates that older adults do not benefit as much from contextual constraint to facilitate the predictive processes commonly observed during sentence comprehension in younger adults. Instead, older adults engage in processes that facilitate integration of a target word, in addition to typical responses to semantic and grammatical violations. However, the vast majority of this research has been conducted in languages with poor morphosyntactic structure, such as English. The goal of this study was to investigate prediction and integration processes during written sentence comprehension in an older adult Spanish-speaking population. We recorded event related potentials (ERPs) to critical article/noun pairs as dominant Spanish speakers (mean age = 63, range: 55 to 83) read sentences, one word at a time. Each sentence built context leading up to a noun of high cloze probability (cloze range 0.65 to 1.0; mean = 0.8). The noun was either semantically congruent or not within the context. In addition, the preceding gender-marked article was manipulated to either agree or disagree in gender with the upcoming expected noun. Previous work with young adult Spanish speakers has shown typical N400 and P600 effects to semantic and gender-agreement violations, respectively, at the noun. Combined violations of both meaning and gender at the noun led to the largest N400 modulation, indicating that grammatical gender agreement can additionally modulate meaning level processes. In addition, analysis at the preceding article showed evidence of prediction based on the upcoming nouns’ expected gender, resulting in a P600 effect when the article violated the gender of the expected, but yet unseen, noun. Critically, this predictive ability seems to diminish with age in equivalent English-language studies manipulating the phonological agreement between article-noun pairs. In the current study, we tested whether the grammatical markings used on Spanish articles and nouns could provide a more reliable cue to enable older adults to show similar effects of prediction as their younger counterparts. ERP analysis time-locked to the critical noun revealed a typical N400 effect followed by a late positive component in response to semantic violations. Gender violations elicited the expected P600 modulation, but unlike younger adults this was preceded by an N400-like negativity. The largest N400 modulation was observed for double violations of meaning and gender, indicating that older adults show strong sensitivity to grammatical gender agreement during sentence comprehension, with this information affecting meaning level processes. When time-locking the ERPs to the prenominal article, a small P600 effect was observed in response to articles that violated the gender of the upcoming expected noun. This suggests that grammatical gender information might be a sufficient cue to reveal predictive effects in older adults. Thus, although the aging brain adopts new strategies to facilitate sentence comprehension with less reliance on predictive processes, the obligatory gender agreement information on words in languages with rich morphosyntactic structure may provide a reliable enough cue to facilitate some forms of predictive processing. Further analysis of individual differences can elucidate which factors contribute most to this predictive ability.

Topic Area: Meaning: Lexical Semantics

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