Recycling Neurons for Reading

Monday, January 24, 2011

Accesibility: Intermediate-Advanced

Our brains have evolved to be good at certain things: seeing, hearing, learning language, and interacting with other similar brains, to name a few examples. But say you want it to do something new – look at symbols on a page and map them to language. In other words, you want to teach your brain to read. How would you go about doing this? What parts of the brain would you use?

Unless you plan on developing a completely new region, it makes sense to repurpose the brain regions you already have -- a process that neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene refers to as “neuronal recycling.” This raises the question -- what regions are recycled? And do the regions that get co-opted become worse at their original function?

Dehaene and colleagues explored this question by scanning adults at different levels of literacy: literates, ex-literates (adults who used to be illiterate but learned to read in adulthood), and illiterate adults. They had several interesting findings:

1. They first looked at whether learning to read changes brain activation when looking at words. Not surprisingly, it does. Reading performance was correlated with increased brain activation in much of the left hemisphere language network, including the visual word form area. And this increased activation appeared to be specific to word-like stimuli.

2. During reading, ex-literates have more bilateral activation and also recruited more posterior brain regions. This is similar to what we find in children, who also show more spread out activation while reading. This suggests that unskilled readers recruit a wider set of brain regions as they are learning to read. As readers become more skilled, their brains become more efficient and recruit fewer regions

3. In literate adults, response to checker boards and faces in the visual word form area was lower in the visual word form area compared to non-readers. This suggests that learning to process words may actually be taking resources away from processing other stimuli.

4. The researchers looked more closely at responses to other faces and houses to see how exactly learning to read competed with other visual functions. They found that activation in the peak voxels for faces and houses did not change with literacy. However, activation in surrounding voxels did decrease.

5. And here's an interesting result. Since reading is a horizontal process (at least in the languages they were testing), the researchers checked to see if the visual system became more attuned to horizontal stimuli. They found that literacy enhanced response to horizontal but not vertical checker boards in some primary visual areas.

Dehaene S, Pegado F, Braga LW, Ventura P, Nunes Filho G, Jobert A, Dehaene-Lambertz G, Kolinsky R, Morais J, & Cohen L (2010). How learning to read changes the cortical networks for vision and language. Science (New York, N.Y.), 330 (6009), 1359-64 PMID: 21071632


twaza (@wassabeee on twitter) January 26, 2011 at 5:54 AM  

Very interesting and stimulating review - thanks

It made my brain recycle a few ageing neurons to map voxels to established concepts.

Ken Arnold January 29, 2011 at 9:23 PM  

btw, Livia talks about this stuff in From Words to Brain also. Check it out :)

And Livia, what do you think of Michael Ullman's "declarative/procedural model"? (e.g.,

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