Faculty Articles

Neurophysiological marker of inhibition distinguishes language groups on a non-linguistic executive function test

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Brain & Cognition




Successful interaction with the environment depends on flexible behaviors which require shifting attention, inhibiting primed responses, ignoring distracting information, and withholding motor responses. These abilities, termed executive function (EF), are believed to be mediated by inhibitory processes in the frontal lobes. Superior performance on EF tests (i.e., faster reaction times (RT), and fewer errors) has been shown in bilinguals compared to monolingual speakers. However, findings are inconsistent, and no study has directly linked this bilingual advantage to frontal lobe inhibitory processes. To clarify this uncertainty, we concomitantly tested neural inhibitory processes and behavioral responses on an EF test in bilinguals and monolinguals. Specifically, we compared English monolinguals (N=15) to Spanish/English bilinguals (N=13) on event-related brain potentials (ERP) during a non-linguistic, auditory Go/NoGo task, a task linked to non-motor, cognitive inhibition in monolinguals. Participants responded with a button press on trials in which target tone-pairs (Go trials) were presented and withheld their responses on non-target trials (NoGo trials). Results revealed significantly greater inhibition (i.e., greater mean N2 amplitude) in bilinguals compared to monolinguals during NoGo trials even though both groups performed the task equally well (i.e., withheld a motor response). On Go trials where participants pressed a response button, neither ERPs nor RT distinguished the groups. Additionally, scores on a second language proficiency test (i.e., English in our bilingual group) were positively correlated with N2 amplitude. These findings are the first to directly link this bilingual advantage to a neural correlate of inhibition and to reveal that inhibition in bilinguals is moderated by second language proficiency. Results are discussed in the context of plasticity, and we propose that evaluating bilinguals at varying levels of second-language proficiency may serve as a model of human neuroplasticity.



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