Humans are thought to have evolved brain regions in the left frontal and temporal cortex that are uniquely capable of language processing. However, congenitally blind individuals also activate the visual cortex in some verbal tasks. We provide evidence that this visual cortex activity in fact reflects language processing. We find that in congenitally blind individuals, the left visual cortex behaves similarly to classic language regions: (i) BOLD signal is higher during sentence comprehension than during linguistically degraded control conditions that are more difficult; (ii) BOLD signal is modulated by phonological information, lexical semantic information, and sentence-level combinatorial structure; and (iii) functional connectivity with language regions in the left prefrontal cortex and thalamus are increased relative to sighted individuals. We conclude that brain regions that are thought to have evolved for vision can take on language processing as a result of early experience. Innate microcircuit properties are not necessary for a brain region to become involved in language processing.
Friday, May 20, 2011
Language processing in our visual brain
Bedny et al. make the fascinating observation that some regions of the visual cortex of congenitally blind people become active in processing verbal tasks. Thus, brain areas thought to have evolved for vision can take on language processing as a result of early experience, innate microcircuit wiring properties specific to language are not required.