Recent work has suggested that variability in levels of neural activation may be related to behavioral and cognitive performance across a number of domains and may offer information that is not captured by more traditional measures that use the average level of brain activation. We examined the relationship between reading skill in school-aged children and neural activation variability during a functional MRI reading task after taking into account average levels of activity. The reading task involved matching printed and spoken words to pictures of items. Single trial activation estimates were used to calculate the mean and standard deviation of children's responses to print and speech stimuli; multiple regression analyses evaluated the relationship between reading skill and trial-by-trial activation variability. The reliability of observed findings from the discovery sample (n = 44; ages 8-11; 18 female) was then confirmed in an independent sample of children (n = 32; ages 8-11; 14 female). Across the two samples, reading skill was positively related to trial-by-trial variability in the activation response to print in the left inferior frontal gyrus pars triangularis. This relationship held even when accounting for mean levels of activation. This finding suggests that intrasubject variability in trial-by-trial fMRI activation responses to printed words accounts for individual differences in human reading ability that are not fully captured by traditional mean levels of brain activity. Furthermore, this positive relationship between trial-by-trial activation variability and reading skill may provide evidence that neural variability plays a beneficial role during early reading development.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Recent work has suggested that neural activation variability, or moment-to-moment changes in the engagement of brain regions, is related to individual differences in behavioral and cognitive performance across multiple domains. However, differences in neural activation variability have not yet been evaluated in relation to reading skill. In the current study, we analyzed data from two independent groups of children who performed an fMRI task involving reading and listening to words. Across both samples, reading skill was positively related to trial-by-trial variability in activation to print stimuli in the left inferior frontal gyrus pars triangularis, even when accounting for the more conventional measure of mean levels of brain activity. This finding suggests that neural variability could be beneficial in developing readers.
Keywords: BOLD variability; event-related fMRI; individual differences; reading disability; trial-by-trial variability; β series.
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