Semantic control deficits impair understanding of thematic relationships more than object identity

Hannah Thompson, James Davey, Paul Hoffman, Glyn Hallam, Rebecca Kosinski, Sarah Howkins, Emma Wooffindin, Rebecca Gabbitas, Elizabeth Jefferies

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Recent work has suggested a potential link between the neurocognitive mechanisms supporting the retrieval of events and thematic associations (i.e., knowledge about how concepts relate in a meaningful context) and semantic control processes that support the capacity to shape retrieval to suit the circumstances. Thematic associations and events are inherently flexible: the meaning of an item changes depending on the context (for example, lamp goes with reading, bicycle and police). Control processes might stabilise weak yet currently-relevant interpretations during event understanding. In contrast, semantic retrieval for objects (to understand what items are, and the categories they belong to) is potentially constrained by sensory-motor features (e.g., bright light) that change less across contexts. Semantic control and event understanding produce overlapping patterns of activation in healthy participants in left prefrontal and temporoparietal regions, but the potential causal link between these aspects of semantic cognition has not been examined. We predict that event understanding relies on semantic control, due to associations being necessarily context-dependent and variable. We tested this hypothesis in two ways: (i) by examining thematic associations and object identity in patients with semantic aphasia, who have well-documented deficits of semantic control following left frontoparietal stroke and (ii) using the same tasks in healthy controls under dual-task conditions that depleted the capacity for cognitive control. The patients were impaired on both identity and thematic matching tasks, and they showed particular difficulty on non-dominant thematic associations which required greater control over semantic retrieval. Healthy participants showed the same pattern under conditions of divided attention. These findings support the view that semantic control is necessary for organising and constraining the retrieval of thematic associations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)113-125
Number of pages13
Early online date11 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2017
Externally publishedYes


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