A robust index of lexical representation in the left occipito-temporal cortex as evidenced by EEG responses to fast periodic visual stimulation

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Despite decades of research on reading, including the relatively recent contributions of neuroimaging and electrophysiology, identifying selective representations of whole visual words (in contrast to pseudowords) in the human brain remains challenging, in particular without an explicit linguistic task. Here we measured discrimination responses to written words by means of electroencephalography (EEG) during fast periodic visual stimulation. Sequences of pseudofonts, nonwords, or pseudowords were presented through sinusoidal contrast modulation at a periodic 10 Hz frequency rate (F), in which words were interspersed at regular intervals of every fifth item (i.e., F/5, 2 Hz). Participants monitored a central cross color change and had no linguistic task to perform. Within only 3 min of stimulation, a robust discrimination response for words at 2 Hz (and its harmonics, i.e., 4 and 6 Hz) was observed in all conditions, located predominantly over the left occipito-temporal cortex. The magnitude of the response was largest for words embedded in pseudofonts, and larger in nonwords than in pseudowords, showing that list context effects classically reported in behavioral lexical decision tasks are due to visual discrimination rather than decisional processes. Remarkably, the oddball response was significant even for the critical words/pseudowords discrimination condition in every individual participant. A second experiment replicated this words/pseudowords discrimination, and showed that this effect is not accounted for by a higher bigram frequency of words than pseudowords. Without any explicit task, our results highlight the potential of an EEG fast periodic visual stimulation approach for understanding the representation of written language. Its development in the scientific community might be valuable to rapidly and objectively measure sensitivity to word processing in different human populations, including neuropsychological patients with dyslexia and other reading difficulties.

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