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Brain. 2010 Mar;133(Pt 3):868-79. doi: 10.1093/brain/awp308. Epub 2010 Jan 7.

Deviant processing of letters and speech sounds as proximate cause of reading failure: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of dyslexic children.

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  • 1Maastricht University, Faculty of Psychology & Neuroscience, Department of Cognitive Neuroscience, P.O. Box 616, 6200 MD, Maastricht, The Netherlands.


Learning to associate auditory information of speech sounds with visual information of letters is a first and critical step for becoming a skilled reader in alphabetic languages. Nevertheless, it remains largely unknown which brain areas subserve the learning and automation of such associations. Here, we employ functional magnetic resonance imaging to study letter-speech sound integration in children with and without developmental dyslexia. The results demonstrate that dyslexic children show reduced neural integration of letters and speech sounds in the planum temporale/Heschl sulcus and the superior temporal sulcus. While cortical responses to speech sounds in fluent readers were modulated by letter-speech sound congruency with strong suppression effects for incongruent letters, no such modulation was observed in the dyslexic readers. Whole-brain analyses of unisensory visual and auditory group differences additionally revealed reduced unisensory responses to letters in the fusiform gyrus in dyslexic children, as well as reduced activity for processing speech sounds in the anterior superior temporal gyrus, planum temporale/Heschl sulcus and superior temporal sulcus. Importantly, the neural integration of letters and speech sounds in the planum temporale/Heschl sulcus and the neural response to letters in the fusiform gyrus explained almost 40% of the variance in individual reading performance. These findings indicate that an interrelated network of visual, auditory and heteromodal brain areas contributes to the skilled use of letter-speech sound associations necessary for learning to read. By extending similar findings in adults, the data furthermore argue against the notion that reduced neural integration of letters and speech sounds in dyslexia reflect the consequence of a lifetime of reading struggle. Instead, they support the view that letter-speech sound integration is an emergent property of learning to read that develops inadequately in dyslexic readers, presumably as a result of a deviant interactive specialization of neural systems for processing auditory and visual linguistic inputs.

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