A Meta-Analysis of Gray Matter Differences Between Bilinguals and Monolinguals

Front Hum Neurosci. 2020 Apr 23;14:146. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2020.00146. eCollection 2020.


Bilingualism is of great interest to the neuroscience of language, and understanding the anatomical changes associated with second language learning help inform theories of bilingual advantage across the lifespan. While the literature on structural differences between bilinguals and monolinguals is robust, relatively few studies of gray matter (GM) have directly compared bilinguals with monolinguals in a whole-brain analysis. Overall, this and heterogeneity of study samples and methodology have led to a lack of clear anatomical support for major theories. Here, we engage in an activation likelihood estimate (ALE) meta-analysis of voxel-based morphometry (VBM) studies of GM for cases that directly compare bilingual and monolingual subjects in a whole-brain analysis. The analysis (sixteen foci, from ten contrasts across eight studies) resulted in one cluster located primarily within the anterior lobe of the right cerebellum. However, when the one pediatric study was removed, the analysis revealed no consistent results across the studies included in this meta-analysis. This suggests that for VBM studies of bilingual and monolingual adults there is considerable heterogeneity of results that complicate the understanding of the bilingual brain. Future studies will need to include larger, more well-defined samples and interrogate more fine-grained anatomical features such as cortical thickness and surface area in order to more fully examine the anatomical changes associated with bilingualism across the lifespan.

Keywords: activation likelihood estimate analysis (ALE); bilingualism; gray matter; meta-analysis; voxel-based morphometry (VBM).