Phonology is a lower-level structural aspect of language involving the sounds of a language and their organization in that language. Numerous behavioral studies utilizing priming, which refers to an increased sensitivity to a stimulus following prior experience with that or a related stimulus, have provided evidence for the role of phonology in visual word recognition. However, most language studies utilizing priming in conjunction with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have focused on lexical-semantic aspects of language processing. The aim of the present study was to investigate the neurobiological substrates of the automatic, implicit stages of phonological processing. While undergoing fMRI, eighteen individuals performed a lexical decision task (LDT) on prime-target pairs including word-word homophone and pseudoword-word pseudohomophone pairs with a prime presentation below perceptual threshold. Whole-brain analyses revealed several cortical regions exhibiting hemodynamic response suppression due to phonological priming including bilateral superior temporal gyri (STG), middle temporal gyri (MTG), and angular gyri (AG) with additional region of interest (ROI) analyses revealing response suppression in the left lateralized supramarginal gyrus (SMG). Homophone and pseudohomophone priming also resulted in different patterns of hemodynamic responses relative to one another. These results suggest that phonological processing plays a key role in visual word recognition. Furthermore, enhanced hemodynamic responses for unrelated stimuli relative to primed stimuli were observed in midline cortical regions corresponding to the default-mode network (DMN) suggesting that DMN activity can be modulated by task requirements within the context of an implicit task.
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