Letter-sound Training in Children Causes Brain Specialization for Letters

Thursday, April 29, 2010

My research focuses on the left occipitotemporal region. One area in this region, also commonly referred to as the visual word form area, has been shown to activate selectively for letters. Presumably, since reading is too recent a phenomenon to have evolved a specialized brain region, the area develops as a result of  experience with words and letters.

To verify this, some studies have trained adults on a new writing system and scanned them pre and post training to see the effects on the occipitotemporal region. The results have been mixed, and complicated by the fact that adults already know a writing system. It would be simpler and more relevant to look at a training effect in children, and that is what Brem and colleagues did. They trained prereading kindergarteners on letters and found that sensitivity to words developed in the occipitotemporal cortex.

The children in this experiment trained on a computerized grapheme-phoneme correspondence game that taught them the sounds associated with individual letters. As a control, they also trained on a nonlinguistic number-knowledge game. The participants did eight weeks on each game, with half the group doing the grapheme training first and the other half doing the number training first. This resulted in a nice within-subject control.

The authors evaluated the children with fMRI and EEG at three time points: 1) Before training, 2) After training with the first game, and 3) after training with the second game. During the fMRI and EEG sessions, the children performed a simple modality judgment task. They were presented with either spoken or written words, false fonts, or unintelligible speech and simply had to say whether the stimulus was in the visual or auditory modality.

After grapheme-phoneme training, kids showed increased activation to words (as compared to false fonts) in the left occipitotemporal region.* The authors then looked more closely along the length of the fusiform gyrus (located in the occipitotemporal region) and found that there was an increase in activation to words in a posterior region a (MNI coordinates 46,-78, -12)**. This region is posterior to what is usually reported as the adult visual word form area. It would be interesting to see if the region shifts with age.

The EEG results supported the fMRI findings. One of the ERP components, the N1 peak, was stronger in response to words after training. The source of the N1 localized to the left occipitotemporal region, right cuneus, and posterior cingulate.

This is a nice study because we can see word expertise development in action, in the age group in which it presumably happens in real life. The authors argue based on previous literature that it’s the visual-phonological mapping that increases specialization in the fusiform, not just visual training. Apparently, previous studies with primarily visual training have not increased activation in the fusiform gyrus, while training adults on phoneme grapheme mapping did. I haven’t looked at those papers recently, but perhaps I’ll investigate them next.

* The posterior fusiform, right inferior temporal gyrus, and cuenus showed this effect.
**More specifically, the authors did an ROI analysis where they picked 5 ROIS along the length of the fusiform gyrus.  The 4th ROI from the front showed this effect.

Brem S, Bach S, Kucian K, Guttorm TK, Martin E, Lyytinen H, Brandeis D, & Richardson U (2010). Brain sensitivity to print emerges when children learn letter-speech sound correspondences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 20395549


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