Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The N170 component of the event-related potential (ERP) reflects experience-dependent neural changes in several forms of visual expertise, including expertise for visual words. Readers skilled in writing systems that link characters to phonemes (i.e., alphabetic writing) typically produce a left-lateralized N170 to visual word forms. This study examined the N170 in three Japanese scripts that link characters to larger phonological units. Participants were monolingual English speakers (EL1) and native Japanese speakers (JL1) who were also proficient in English. ERPs were collected using a 129-channel array, as participants performed a series of experiments viewing words or novel control stimuli in a repetition detection task. The N170 was strongly left-lateralized for all three Japanese scripts (including logographic Kanji characters) in JL1 participants, but bilateral in EL1 participants viewing these same stimuli. This demonstrates that left-lateralization of the N170 is dependent on specific reading expertise and is not limited to alphabetic scripts. Additional contrasts within the moraic Katakana script revealed equivalent N170 responses in JL1 speakers for familiar Katakana words and for Kanji words transcribed into novel Katakana words, suggesting that the N170 expertise effect is driven by script familiarity rather than familiarity with particular visual word forms. Finally, for English words and novel symbol string stimuli, both EL1 and JL1 subjects produced equivalent responses for the novel symbols, and more left-lateralized N170 responses for the English words, indicating that such effects are not limited to the first language. Taken together, these cross-linguistic results suggest that similar neural processes underlie visual expertise for print in very different writing systems.