Development of the Visual Word Form Area Requires Visual Experience: Evidence from Blind Braille Readers

Date Published:

2017 Nov 22


Learning to read causes the development of a letter- and word-selective region known as the visual word form area (VWFA) within the human ventral visual object stream. Why does a reading-selective region develop at this anatomical location? According to one hypothesis, the VWFA develops at the nexus of visual inputs from retinotopic cortices and linguistic input from the frontotemporal language network because reading involves extracting linguistic information from visual symbols. Surprisingly, the anatomical location of the VWFA is also active when blind individuals read Braille by touch, suggesting that vision is not required for the development of the VWFA. In this study, we tested the alternative prediction that VWFA development is in fact influenced by visual experience. We predicted that in the absence of vision, the "VWFA" is incorporated into the frontotemporal language network and participates in high-level language processing. Congenitally blind (n = 10, 9 female, 1 male) and sighted control (n = 15, 9 female, 6 male), male and female participants each took part in two functional magnetic resonance imaging experiments: (1) word reading (Braille for blind and print for sighted participants), and (2) listening to spoken sentences of different grammatical complexity (both groups). We find that in blind, but not sighted participants, the anatomical location of the VWFA responds both to written words and to the grammatical complexity of spoken sentences. This suggests that in blindness, this region takes on high-level linguistic functions, becoming less selective for reading. More generally, the current findings suggest that experience during development has a major effect on functional specialization in the human cortex.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The visual word form area (VWFA) is a region in the human cortex that becomes specialized for the recognition of written letters and words. Why does this particular brain region become specialized for reading? We tested the hypothesis that the VWFA develops within the ventral visual stream because reading involves extracting linguistic information from visual symbols. Consistent with this hypothesis, we find that in congenitally blind Braille readers, but not sighted readers of print, the VWFA region is active during grammatical processing of spoken sentences. These results suggest that visual experience contributes to VWFA specialization, and that different neural implementations of reading are possible.