Humans are Born with Brains 'Prewired' to See Words

Humans are born with a part of the brain that is prewired to be receptive to seeing words and letters, setting the stage at birth for people to learn how to read. Analyzing brain scans of newborns, researchers found that this part of the brain – called the “visual word form area” (VWFA) – is connected to the language network of the brain. “That makes it fertile ground to develop a sensitivity to visual words – even before any exposure to language,” said Zeynep Saygin, assistant professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

Not Just Another Part of the Visual Cortex

The VWFA is specialized for reading only in literate individuals. Some researchers had hypothesized that the pre-reading VWFA starts out being no different than other parts of the visual cortex that are sensitive to seeing faces, scenes or other objects, and only becomes selective to words and letters as children learn to read or at least as they learn language. “We found that isn’t true. Even at birth, the VWFA is more connected functionally to the language network of the brain than it is to other areas,” Saygin said. “It is an incredibly exciting finding.”

The researchers analyzed fMRI scans of the brains of 40 newborns, all less than a week old, who were part of the Developing Human Connectome Project. They compared these to similar scans from 40 adults who participated in the separate Human Connectome Project.

The VWFA is next to another part of visual cortex that processes faces, and it was reasonable to believe that there wasn’t any difference in these parts of the brain in newborns. As visual objects, faces have some of the same properties as words do, such as needing high spatial resolution for humans to see them correctly. But the researchers found that, even in newborns, the VWFA was different from the part of the visual cortex that recognizes faces, primarily because of its functional connection to the language processing part of the brain. "The VWFA is specialized to see words even before we’re exposed to them," Saygin said.

Brain Connections at Birth

“It’s interesting to think about how and why our brains develop functional modules that are sensitive to specific things like faces, objects, and words. Our study emphasized the role of already having brain connections at birth to help develop functional specialization, even for an experience-dependent category like reading,” said Li, the lead author of the study.

The study did find some differences in the VWFA in newborns and adults. “Our findings suggest that there likely needs to be further refinement in the VWFA as babies mature,” Saygin said. “Experience with spoken and written language will likely strengthen connections with specific aspects of the language circuit and further differentiate this region’s function from its neighbors as a person gains literacy.”

Saygin’s lab at Ohio State is currently scanning the brains of 3- and 4-year-olds to learn more about what the VWFA does before children learn to read and what visual properties the region is responsive to. The goal is to learn how the brain becomes a reading brain. Learning more about individual variability may help researchers understand differences in reading behavior and could be useful in the study of dyslexia and other developmental disorders.

“Knowing what this region is doing at this early age will tell us a bit more about how the human brain can develop the ability to read and what may go wrong,” Saygin said. “It is important to track how this region of the brain becomes increasingly specialized.”

StepUp Note

This important research helps us understand the functional connections in the brain which make us hard-wired for seeing words and being able to learn to read. Researchers here documented the brain connections between the VWFA (Visual Word Form Area) and the language processing area. They showed that these connections are present from birth, and that experience with spoken and written language will most likely strengthen the connections between reading and language.

The StepUp programs provide daily practice with rhythmic movement exercises focused on spoken and written letters, numbers and words.  These exercises strengthen the neural connections between hearing, vision and balance. They help us focus and pay attention and at the same time provide practice with seeing the visual detail and hearing the auditory detail that provide a critical foundation for development of a "reading brain." StepUp's cloud-based programs enrich any PreK - Grade 2 curriculum. Try it free for 30 days! 

Note by Nancy W Rowe, M.S., CCC/A

Article reposted from Ohio State University. Zeynep Saygin, a faculty member of Ohio State’s Chronic Brain Injury Program, conducted the study with graduate students Jin Li and Heather Hansen and assistant professor David Osher. Their results were published in the journal Scientific Reports.