Expertise with characters in alphabetic and nonalphabetic writing systems engage overlapping occipito-temporal areas

Cogn Neuropsychol. 2009 Feb;26(1):111-27. doi: 10.1080/02643290802340972.


Parts of the left ventral visual pathway are engaged selectively during the perception of words, letter strings, and even single letters. While studies have shown overlap between activations for letters and characters across writing systems, they adopted group analyses with very limited spatial resolution, or used words and letter strings that have been shown to activate different regions from those activated by single characters. The current study compared activity within individual participants for the perception of single characters from different writing systems. Roman letters, Chinese characters, objects, and faces were presented to Chinese-English bilinguals and English readers with no Chinese reading experience. Individual subject analyses revealed a large overlap between Roman- and Chinese-selective areas in the bilinguals. In general, the activity in the Roman-selective area of the left hemisphere is associated with experience with the script, as non-Chinese readers showed lower activations to Chinese characters than to Roman letters. Further analyses found considerable variation within non-Chinese readers in the activation for Chinese characters: while the majority had no selectivity for Chinese characters at all, some showed activations for Chinese characters at locations similar to those selective for Roman letters. The results suggest that both stimulus properties and experience are important factors in determining the response to single characters across writing systems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Multilingualism
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Occipital Lobe / blood supply
  • Occipital Lobe / physiology*
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time
  • Reading
  • Semantics
  • Temporal Lobe / blood supply
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology*
  • Vocabulary*
  • Writing*
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen