Two types of phonological reading impairment in stroke aphasia

Brain Commun. 2021 Aug 30;3(3):fcab194. doi: 10.1093/braincomms/fcab194. eCollection 2021.


Alexia is common in the context of aphasia. It is widely agreed that damage to phonological and semantic systems not specific to reading causes co-morbid alexia and aphasia. Studies of alexia to date have only examined phonology and semantics as singular processes or axes of impairment, typically in the context of stereotyped alexia syndromes. However, phonology, in particular, is known to rely on subprocesses, including sensory-phonological processing, motor-phonological processing, and sensory-motor integration. Moreover, many people with stroke aphasia demonstrate mild or mixed patterns of reading impairment that do not fit neatly with one syndrome. This cross-sectional study tested whether the hallmark symptom of phonological reading impairment, the lexicality effect, emerges from damage to a specific subprocess of phonology in stroke patients not selected for alexia syndromes. Participants were 30 subjects with left-hemispheric stroke and 37 age- and education-matched controls. A logistic mixed-effects model tested whether post-stroke impairments in sensory phonology, motor phonology, or sensory-motor integration modulated the effect of item lexicality on patient accuracy in reading aloud. Support vector regression voxel-based lesion-symptom mapping localized brain regions necessary for reading and non-orthographic phonological processing. Additionally, a novel support vector regression structural connectome-symptom mapping method identified the contribution of both lesioned and spared but disconnected, brain regions to reading accuracy and non-orthographic phonological processing. Specifically, we derived whole-brain structural connectomes using constrained spherical deconvolution-based probabilistic tractography and identified lesioned connections based on comparisons between patients and controls. Logistic mixed-effects regression revealed that only greater motor-phonological impairment related to lower accuracy reading aloud pseudowords versus words. Impaired sensory-motor integration was related to lower overall accuracy in reading aloud. No relationship was identified between sensory-phonological impairment and reading accuracy. Voxel-based and structural connectome lesion-symptom mapping revealed that lesioned and disconnected left ventral precentral gyrus related to both greater motor-phonological impairment and lower sublexical reading accuracy. In contrast, lesioned and disconnected left temporoparietal cortex is related to both impaired sensory-motor integration and reduced overall reading accuracy. These results clarify that at least two dissociable phonological processes contribute to the pattern of reading impairment in aphasia. First, impaired sensory-motor integration, caused by lesions disrupting the left temporoparietal cortex and its structural connections, non-selectively reduces accuracy in reading aloud. Second, impaired motor-phonological processing, caused at least partially by lesions disrupting left ventral premotor cortex and structural connections, selectively reduces sublexical reading accuracy. These results motivate a revised cognitive model of reading aloud that incorporates a sensory-motor phonological circuit.

Keywords: alexia; aphasia; lesion-symptom mapping; stroke; structural connectivity.