Kubota E.C., Joo S.J., Huber E., Yeatman J.D. (2018). Word selectivity in high-level visual cortex and reading skill. Dev Cogn Neurosci.
Word-selective neural responses in human ventral occipito-temporal cortex (VOTC) emerge as children learn to read, creating a visual word form area (VWFA) in the literate brain. It has been suggested that the VWFA arises through competition between pre-existing selectivity for other stimulus categories, changing the topography of VOTC to support rapid word recognition. Here, we hypothesized that competition between words and objects would be resolved as children acquire reading skill. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we examined the relationship between responses to words and objects in VOTC in two ways. First, we defined the VWFA using a words > objects contrast and found that only skilled readers had a region that responded more to words than objects. Second, we defined the VWFA using a words > faces contrast and examined selectivity for words over objects in this region. We found that word selectivity strongly correlated with reading skill, suggesting reading skill-dependent tuning for words. Furthermore, we found that low word selectivity in struggling readers was not due to a lack of response to words, but to a high response to objects. Our results suggest that the fine-tuning of word-selective responses in VOTC is a critical component of skilled reading.