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Emerging neural specialization of the ventral occipitotemporal cortex to characters through phonological association learning in preschool children

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Original article (peer-reviewed)
Author Pleisch Georgette, Karipidis Iliana I., Brauchli Christian, Röthlisberger Martina, Hofstetter Christoph, Stämpfli Philipp, Walitza Susanne, Brem Silvia,
Project Neuronal markers of grapheme-phoneme training response for prediction of successful reading acquisition in children at familial risk for developmental dyslexia
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Original article (peer-reviewed)

Journal NeuroImage
Title of proceedings NeuroImage
DOI 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.01.046

Open Access

URL https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.01.046
Type of Open Access Publisher (Gold Open Access)

Abstract

The ventral occipitotemporal (vOT) cortex serves as a core region for visual processing, and specific areas of this region show preferential activation for various visual categories such as faces and print. The emergence of such functional specialization in the human cortex represents a pivotal developmental process, which provides a basis for targeted and efficient information processing. For example, functional specialization to print in the left vOT is an important prerequisite for fluent reading. However, it remains unclear, which processes initiate the preferential cortical activations to characters arising in the vOT during child development. Using a multimodal neuroimaging approach with preschool children at familial risk for developmental dyslexia, we demonstrate how varying levels of expertise modulate the neural response to single characters, which represent the building blocks of print units. The level of expertise to characters was manipulated firstly through brief training of false-font speech–sound associations and secondly by comparing characters for which children differed in their level of familiarity and expertise accumulated through abundant exposure in their everyday environment. Neural correlates of character processing were tracked with simultaneous high-density electroencephalography and functional magnetic resonance imaging in a target detection task. We found training performance and expertise-dependent modulation of the visual event-related potential around 220 ms (N1) and the corresponding vOT activation. Additionally, trained false-font characters revealed stronger functional connectivity between the left fusiform gyrus (FFG) seed and left superior parietal/lateral occipital cortex regions with higher training performance. In sum, our results demonstrate that learning artificial-character speech–sound associations enhances activation to trained characters in the vOT and that the magnitude of this activation and the functional connectivity of the left FFG to the parieto-occipital cortex depends on learning performance. This pattern of results suggests emerging development of the reading network after brief training that parallels network specialization during reading acquisition.
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