Whole-brain functional connectivity during acquisition of novel grammar: Distinct functional networks depend on language learning abilities

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In an effort to advance the understanding of brain function and organisation accompanying second language learning, we investigate the neural substrates of novel grammar learning in a group of healthy adults, consisting of participants with high and average language analytical abilities (LAA). By means of an Independent Components Analysis, a data-driven approach to functional connectivity of the brain, the fMRI data collected during a grammar-learning task were decomposed into maps representing separate cognitive processes. These included the default mode, task-positive, working memory, visual, cerebellar and emotional networks. We further tested for differences within the components, representing individual differences between the High and Average LAA learners. We found high analytical abilities to be coupled with stronger contributions to the task-positive network from areas adjacent to bilateral Broca’s region, stronger connectivity within the working memory network and within the emotional network. Average LAA participants displayed stronger engagement within the task-positive network from areas adjacent to the right-hemisphere homologue of Broca's region and typical to lower level processing (visual word recognition), and increased connectivity within the default mode network. The significance of each of the identified networks for the grammar learning process is presented next to a discussion on the established markers of inter-individual learners’ differences. We conclude that in terms of functional connectivity, the engagement of brain’s networks during grammar acquisition is coupled with one’s language learning abilities.

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