fMRI correlates of cortical specialization and generalization for letter processing

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Abstract

The present study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine cortical specialization for letter processing. We assessed whether brain regions that were involved in letter processing exhibited domain-specific and/or mandatory responses, following Fodor's definition of properties of modular systems (Fodor, J.A., 1983. The Modularity of Mind. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.). Domain-specificity was operationalized as selective, or exclusive, activation for letters relative to object and visual noise processing and a baseline fixation task. Mandatory processing was operationalized as selective activation for letters during both a silent naming and a perceptual matching task. In addition to these operational definitions, other operational definitions of selectivity for letter processing discussed by [Pernet, C., Celsis, P., Demonet, J., 2005. Selective response to letter categorization within the left fusiform gyrus. NeuroImage 28, 738–744] were applied to the data. Although the left fusiform gyrus showed a specialized response to letters using the definition of selectivity put forth by [Pernet, C., Celsis, P., Demonet, J., 2005. Selective response to letter categorization within the left fusiform gyrus. NeuroImage 28, 738–744], this region did not exhibit specialization for letters according to our more conservative definition of selectivity. Instead, this region showed equivalent activation by letters and objects in both the naming and matching tasks. Hence, the left fusiform gyrus does not exhibit domain-specific or mandatory processing but may reflect a shared input system for both stimulus types. The left insula and some portions of the left inferior parietal lobule, however, did show a domain-specific response for letter naming but not for letter matching. These regions likely subserve some linguistically oriented cognitive process that is unique to letters, such as grapheme-to-phoneme translation or retrieval of phonological codes for letter names. Hence, cortical specialization for letters emerged in the naming task in some peri-sylvian language related cortices, but not in occipito-temporal cortex. Given that the domain-specific response for letters in left peri-sylvian regions was only present in the naming task, these regions do not process letters in a mandatory fashion, but are instead modulated by the linguistic nature of the task.

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