Background: N170 effects associated with visual words may be related to perceptual expertise effects that have been demonstrated for faces and other extensively studied classes of visual stimuli. Although face and other object expertise effects are typically bilateral or right-lateralized, the spatial topography of reading-related N170 effects are often left-lateralized, providing potential insights into the unique aspects of reading-related perceptual expertise.
Methods: Extending previous research in German, we use a high-density channel array to characterize the N170 topography for reading-related perceptual expertise in English, a language with inconsistent spelling-to-sound mapping. N170 effects related to overall reading-related expertise are defined by contrasting responses to visual words versus novel symbol strings. By contrasting each of these conditions to pseudowords, we examined how this reading-related N170 effect generalizes to well-ordered novel letter strings.
Results: A sample-by-sample permutation test computed on word versus symbol ERP topographies revealed differences during two time windows corresponding to the N170 and P300 components. Topographic centroid analysis of the word and symbol N170 demonstrated significant differences in both left-right as well as inferior-superior dimensions. Words elicited larger N170 negativities than symbols at inferior occipito-temporal channels, with the maximal effect over left inferior regions often unsampled in conventional electrode montages. Further contrasts produced inferior-superior topographic effects for the pseudoword-symbol comparison and left-lateralized topographic effects for the word-pseudoword comparison.
Conclusion: Fast specialized perception related to reading experience produces an N170 modulation detectable across different EEG systems and different languages. Characterization of such effects may be improved by sampling with greater spatial frequency recordings that sample inferior regions. Unlike in German, reading-related expertise effects in English produced only partial generalization in N170 responses to novel pseudowords. The topographic inferior-superior N170 differences may reflect general perceptual expertise for orthographic strings, as it was found for words and pseudowords across both languages. The topographic left-right N170 difference between words and pseudowords was only found in English, and may suggest that ambiguity in pronunciating novel pseudowords due to inconsistency in spelling-to-sound mapping influences early stages of letter string processing.