The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents begin reading to their children soon after birth, and limits on screen-based media. Benefits of traditional book-sharing are well documented in children, while cited deleterious effects of animated content on narrative processing are controversial. The influence of story format on underlying functional brain networks has not previously been studied. Thirty-three healthy children were recruited for this study via advertisement at an academic medical center, which involved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at a single visit. Twenty-seven of them completed fMRI (82%; 15 boys, 12 girls; mean 58 ± 8 months old). The fMRI protocol involved the presentation of 3 similar, unrhymed stories by the same author lasting 5 min each in audio, illustrated, and animated format during separate runs, followed by a test of factual recall. Within- and between-network functional connectivity (FC) was compared across formats involving five functional networks, which were defined via literature review and refined via a data-driven parcellation method: visual perception, visual imagery, language, Default Mode (DMN), and cerebellar association. For illustration relative to audio, FC was decreased within the language network and increased between visual, DMN, and cerebellar networks, suggesting decreased strain on the language network afforded by pictures and visual imagery. Between-network connectivity was decreased for all networks for animation relative to the other formats, particularly illustration, suggesting a bias towards visual perception at the expense of network integration. These findings suggest substantial differences in functional brain network connectivity for animated and more traditional story formats in preschool-age children, reinforcing the appeal of illustrated storybooks at this age to provide efficient scaffolding for language, and suggesting novel neurobiological correlates of how functional networks may contribute to this process.
Keywords: Children; Functional connectivity; Narrative processing; Screen time; Shared reading; Story listening; Visual imagery; fMRI.