A defining aspect of human cognition is the ability to integrate conceptual information into complex semantic combinations. For example, we can comprehend “plaid” and “jacket” as individual concepts, but we can also effortlessly combine these concepts to form the semantic representation of “plaid jacket.” Many neuroanatomic models of semantic memory propose that heteromodal cortical hubs integrate distributed semantic features into coherent representations. However, little work has specifically examined these proposed integrative mechanisms and the causal role of these regions in semantic integration. Here, we test the hypothesis that the angular gyrus (AG) is critical for integrating semantic information by applying high-definition transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to an fMRI-guided region-of-interest in the left AG. We found that anodal stimulation to the left AG modulated semantic integration but had no effect on a letter-string control task. Specifically, anodal stimulation to the left AG resulted in faster comprehension of semantically meaningful combinations like “tiny radish” relative to non-meaningful combinations, such as “fast blueberry,” when compared to the effects observed during sham stimulation and stimulation to a right-hemisphere control brain region. Moreover, the size of the effect from brain stimulation correlated with the degree of semantic coherence between the word pairs. These findings demonstrate that the left AG plays a causal role in the integration of lexical-semantic information, and that high-definition tDCS to an associative cortical hub can selectively modulate integrative processes in semantic memory.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT A major goal of neuroscience is to understand the neural basis of behaviors that are fundamental to human intelligence. One essential behavior is the ability to integrate conceptual knowledge from semantic memory, allowing us to construct an almost unlimited number of complex concepts from a limited set of basic constituents (e.g., “leaf” and “wet” can be combined into the more complex representation “wet leaf”). Here, we present a novel approach to studying integrative processes in semantic memory by applying focal brain stimulation to a heteromodal cortical hub implicated in semantic processing. Our findings demonstrate a causal role of the left angular gyrus in lexical-semantic integration and provide motivation for novel therapeutic applications in patients with lexical-semantic deficits.