The Visual Word Form Area (VWFA) is part of the left ventral visual stream that underlies the invariant identification of visual words. It remains debated whether this region is truly selective for words relative to common objects; why this particular part of the visual system is reproducibly engaged in reading; and whether reading expertise also relies on perceptual learning within earlier visual areas. In this fMRI study we matched written words and line-drawings of objects in luminance, contour length and number of features. We then compared them to control images made by scrambling procedures that kept local features intact. Greater responses to written words than to objects were found not only in the VWFA, but also in areas V1/V2 and V3v/V4. Furthermore, by contrasting stimuli reduced either to line junctions (vertices) or to line midsegments, we showed that the VWFA partially overlaps with regions of ventral visual cortex particularly sensitive to the presence of line junctions that are useful for object recognition. Our results indicate that preferential processing of written words can be observed at multiple levels of the visual system. It is possible that responses in early visual areas might be due to some remaining differences between words and controls not eliminated in the present stimuli. However, our results concur with recent comparisons of literates and illiterates and suggest that these early visual activations reflect the effects of perceptual learning under pressure for fast, parallel processing that is more prominent in reading than other visual cognitive processes.
Copyright © 2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.