N170 ERPs could represent a logographic processing strategy in visual word recognition

Behav Brain Funct. 2007 Apr 23:3:21. doi: 10.1186/1744-9081-3-21.


Background: Occipito-temporal N170 component represents the first step where face, object and word processing are discriminated along the ventral stream of the brain. N170 leftward asymmetry observed during reading has been often associated to prelexical orthographic visual word form activation. However, some studies reported a lexical frequency effect for this component particularly during word repetition that appears in contradiction with this prelexical orthographic step. Here, we tested the hypothesis that under word repetition condition, discrimination between words would be operated on visual rather than orthographic basis. In this case, N170 activity may correspond to a logographic processing where a word is processed as a whole.

Methods: To test such an assumption, frequent words, infrequent words and pseudowords were presented to the subjects that had to complete a visual lexical decision task. Different repetition conditions were defined 1--weak repetition, 2--massive repetition and 3--massive repetition with font alternation. This last condition was designed to change visual word shape during repetition and therefore to interfere with a possible visual strategy during word recognition.

Results: Behavioral data showed an important frequency effect for the weak repetition condition, a lower but significant frequency effect for massive repetition, and no frequency effect for the changing font repetition. Moreover alternating font repetitions slowed subject's responses in comparison to "simple" massive repetition.ERPs results evidenced larger N170 amplitude in the left hemisphere for frequent than both infrequent words and pseudowords during massive repetition. Moreover, when words were repeated with different fonts this N170 effect was not present, suggesting a visual locus for such a N170 frequency effect.

Conclusion: N170 represents an important step in visual word recognition, consisting probably in a prelexical orthographic processing. But during the reading of very frequent words or after a massive repetition of a word, it could represent a more holistic process where words are processed as a global visual pattern.