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Literacy Re-wires the Brain

In a  study pub­lished today in Sci­ence, func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI) was used to study the brains of 63 adults: 10 were illit­er­ate, 22 learned to read as adults, and 31  learned to read as chil­dren. Brain respons­es to spo­ken and writ­ten lan­guage, visu­al faces, hous­es, tools, and check­ers were exam­ined.

The main dif­fer­ences found between lit­er­ate and illit­er­ate brains were:

1- The brains of all lit­er­ate adults showed more vig­or­ous respons­es to writ­ten words. This occurred in brain regions known to process visu­al infor­ma­tion.

2- The brains of all lit­er­ate adults also showed enhanced activ­i­ty in left-tem­po­ral areas known to respond to spo­ken lan­guage.

2- The brain of illit­er­ate adults showed enhanced activ­i­ty in the left occip­i­tal-tem­po­ral  region of the brain known to respond to faces.

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What does it mean?

These results sug­gest that learn­ing to read changes the brain, not sur­pris­ing­ly, in the regions involved in vision and writ­ten lan­guage and, more sur­pris­ing­ly, in regions involved in oral lan­guage as well. These changes may hap­pen at some cost: The brains of lit­er­ate adults showed less response to faces than the brains of illit­er­ate adults. This may come from the fact that lit­er­ate brains have to share regions of the occip­i­tal-tem­po­ral cor­tex between words and faces. Whether this trans­lates into real behav­ioral dif­fer­ences is not know so far.

Inter­est­ing­ly, the changes hap­pened in the brain whether adults learned to read as chil­dren or much lat­er. This is a great exam­ple of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty: Learn­ing can change the brain, at all ages.

Relat­ed arti­cle: Brain Plas­tic­i­ty: How learn­ing changes your brain

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  1. Awe­some. Per­son­al­ly, I’d say that the lit­er­ate brain is, aside from nutri­tion­al con­sid­er­a­tions, more fit and healthy than the illit­er­ate brain — but it’s not like I can run up and down the street shout­ing it, because I haven’t read of any stud­ies show­ing that the lit­er­ate brain has greater vol­ume than the illit­er­ate brain. Any­body out there seen any­thing on the mat­ter?

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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience

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