The VWFA: it's not just for words anymore

Front Hum Neurosci. 2014 Mar 20;8:88. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00088. eCollection 2014.


Reading is an important but phylogenetically new skill. While neuroimaging studies have identified brain regions used in reading, it is unclear to what extent these regions become specialized for use predominantly in reading vs. other tasks. Over the past several years, our group has published three studies addressing this question, particularly focusing on whether the putative visual word form area (VWFA) is used predominantly in reading, or whether it is used more generally in a number of tasks. Our three studies utilize a range of neuroimaging techniques, including task based fMRI experiments, a seed based resting state functional connectivity (RSFC) experiment, and a network based RSFC experiment. Overall, our studies indicate that the VWFA is not used specifically or even predominantly for reading. Rather the VWFA is a general use region that has processing properties making it particularly useful for reading, though it continues to be used in any task that requires its general processing properties. Our network based RSFC analysis extends this finding to other regions typically thought to be used predominantly for reading. Here, we review these findings and describe how the three studies complement each other. Then, we argue that conceptualizing the VWFA as a brain region with specific processing characteristics rather than a brain region devoted to a specific stimulus class, allows us to better explain the activity seen in this region during a variety of tasks. Having this type of conceptualization not only provides a better understanding of the VWFA but also provides a framework for understanding other brain regions, as it affords an explanation of function that is in keeping with the long history of studying the brain in terms of the type of information processing performed (Posner, 1978).

Keywords: fMRI; occipito-temporal cortex; orthography; reading; resting-state fMRI; resting-state functional connectivity; resting-state networks; visual word form area.

Publication types

  • Review