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A substantial amount of work has examined language abilities in young children with specific language impairment (SLI); however, our understanding of the developmental trajectory of language impairment is limited. Along with studying the behavioral changes that occur across development, it is important to examine the neural indices of language processing for children with different language trajectories. The current study sought to examine behavioral and neural bases of language processing in adolescents showing three different trajectories: those with normal language development (NL), those exhibiting persistent SLI (SLI-Persistent), and those with a history of SLI who appear to have recovered (SLI-Recovered).


Through a sentence judgment task, we examined semantic and syntactic processing. Adolescents judged whether or not each sentence was semantically and syntactically correct. Stimuli consisted of naturally spoken sentences that were either correct, contained a semantic verb error, or contained a syntactic verb agreement error. Verb agreement errors consisted of omission and commission violations of the third-person singular -s. Behavioral button-press responses and electroencephalographic recordings were collected. Behavioral judgments and mean amplitude of the N400 and P600 components were examined.


Adolescents in the SLI-Persistent group had lower sentence judgment accuracy overall, relative to the NL and SLI-Recovered groups. Accuracy in judging omission and commission syntactic errors were marginally different, with marginally lower accuracy for commission errors. All groups demonstrated an N400 component elicited by semantic violations. However, adolescents in the SLI-Persistent group demonstrated a less robust P600 component for syntactic violations. Furthermore, adolescents in the SLI-Recovered group exhibited a similar neural profile to the NL group for the semantic and syntactic omission violations. However, a unique profile with initial negativity was observed in the SLI-Recovered group in the commission violation condition.


Adolescents with persistent language impairment continue to demonstrate delays in language processing at the behavioral and neural levels. Conversely, the adolescents in the SLI-Recovered group appear to have made gains in language processing skills to overcome their initial impairments. However, our findings suggest that the adolescents in the SLI-Recovered group may have compensatory processing strategies for some aspects of language, as evidenced by a unique event-related potential profile.


This is the publisher PDF of Haebig, E., Weber, C., Leonard, L.B. et al. Neural patterns elicited by sentence processing uniquely characterize typical development, SLI recovery, and SLI persistence. J Neurodevelop Disord 9, 22 (2017). Published CC-BY, the version of record is available at DOI: 10.1186/s11689-017-9201-1 .

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