Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Previous behavioral and functional neuroimaging data indicate that certain aspects of phonological processing may not be acquired spontaneously, but are modulated by learning an alphabetic written language, that is, learning to read and write. It appears that learning an alphabetic written language modifies the auditory-verbal (spoken) language processing competence in a nontrivial way. We have previously suggested, based on behavioral and functional neuroimaging data, that auditory-verbal and written language interact not only during certain language tasks, but that learning and developing alphabetic written language capacities significantly modulates the spoken language system. Specifically, the acquisition of alphabetic orthographic knowledge has a modulatory influence on sublexical phonological processing and the awareness of sublexical phonological structure. We have suggested that developing an orthographic representation system for an alphabetic written language, and integrating a phonemegrapheme correspondence with an existing infrastructure for auditory-verbal language processing, will result in a modified language network. Specifically, we suggest that the parallel interactive processing characteristics of the underlying language-processing brain network differ in literate and illiterate subjects. Therefore, the pattern of interactions between the regions of a suitably defined large-scale functional-anatomical network for language processing will differ between literate and illiterate subjects during certain language tasks. In order to investigate this hypothesis further, we analyzed the observed covariance structure in a PET data set from a simple auditory-verbal repetition paradigm in literate and illiterate subjects, with a network approach based on structural equation modeling (SEM). Based on a simple network model for language processing, the results of the present network analysis indicate that the network interactions during word and pseudoword repetition in the illiterate group differ, while there were no significant differences in the literate group. The differences between the two tasks in the illiterate group may reflect differences in attentional modulation of the language network, executive aspects of verbal working memory and the articulatory organization of verbal output. There were no significant differences between the literate and illiterate group during word repetition. In contrast, the network interactions differed between the literate and illiterate group during pseudoword repetition. In addition to differences similar to those observed in the illiterate group between word and pseudoword repetition, there were differences related to the interactions of the phonological loop between the groups. In particular, these differences related to the interaction between Broca's area and the inferior parietal cortex as well as the posterior-midinsula bridge between Wernicke's and Broca's area. In conclusion, the results of this network analysis are consistent with our previously presented results and support the hypothesis that learning to read and write during childhood influences the functional architecture of the adult human brain. In particular, the basic auditory-verbal language network in the human brain is modified as a consequence of acquiring orthographic language skills.