Neural Language Processing in Adolescent First-Language Learners: Longitudinal Case Studies in American Sign Language

Cereb Cortex. 2016 Mar;26(3):1015-26. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhu273. Epub 2014 Nov 19.


One key question in neurolinguistics is the extent to which the neural processing system for language requires linguistic experience during early life to develop fully. We conducted a longitudinal anatomically constrained magnetoencephalography (aMEG) analysis of lexico-semantic processing in 2 deaf adolescents who had no sustained language input until 14 years of age, when they became fully immersed in American Sign Language. After 2 to 3 years of language, the adolescents' neural responses to signed words were highly atypical, localizing mainly to right dorsal frontoparietal regions and often responding more strongly to semantically primed words (Ferjan Ramirez N, Leonard MK, Torres C, Hatrak M, Halgren E, Mayberry RI. 2014. Neural language processing in adolescent first-language learners. Cereb Cortex. 24 (10): 2772-2783). Here, we show that after an additional 15 months of language experience, the adolescents' neural responses remained atypical in terms of polarity. While their responses to less familiar signed words still showed atypical localization patterns, the localization of responses to highly familiar signed words became more concentrated in the left perisylvian language network. Our findings suggest that the timing of language experience affects the organization of neural language processing; however, even in adolescence, language representation in the human brain continues to evolve with experience.

Keywords: age of acquisition; anatomically constrained magnetoencephalography; critical period; plasticity; sign language.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Critical Period, Psychological
  • Deafness / physiopathology*
  • Deafness / psychology
  • Deafness / rehabilitation
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language Development*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Magnetoencephalography
  • Male
  • Repetition Priming / physiology
  • Semantics
  • Sign Language*
  • Visual Perception / physiology