Key advance: Neuroscientists get a new look into how we read

April 7, 2016 by Andy Fell And Karen Nikos
Credit: Marina Shemesh/public domain

Neuroscientists at UC Davis have come up with a way to observe brain activity during natural reading. It's the first time researchers have been able to study the brain while reading actual texts, instead of individual words, and it's already helping settle some ideas about just how we read.

The research has potential implications for understanding dyslexia and other reading deficits, Henderson said.

"It's a key advance in understanding reading in the , because people are just reading normally," said John Henderson, professor of psychology at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain. The work was published today (April 6) in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Until now, neuroscientists have only measured brain activity as a volunteer fixes his or her attention on individual . The signals of brain activity from functional , or fMRI, last for several seconds—too slow to keep up with natural reading, which processes several words a second.

Instead, Henderson and colleagues combined functional MRI with eye tracking. Lying in an MRI scanner, subjects read text on a screen while the eye-tracking device registers which word they are paying attention to at any given time. They call this new method fixation-related, or "FIRE" fMRI.

"By tracking their eye movements as they read natural paragraphs, we can know which word they are attending to, and see the neural signal for fixation on each word," Henderson said.

Two theories of reading

The team has applied the technology to test ideas about how words are represented in the brain. There are two theories about this, Henderson said. The first holds that words are represented by connections to the real world: What does it look like, how do I handle it, how does it make me feel, reflected in for vision, touch, emotion and so on. The second theory holds that words are represented as abstract symbols that interact with each other.

To test these ideas, Henderson and colleagues scored the nouns in their test paragraphs for "manipulability": do they refer to real objects that can be manipulated to some degree?

As volunteers read the manipulable nouns, areas of the brain that deal with manipulation and carrying out physical actions lit up, lending support to the view that words are represented in the brain by connections with real actions.

By providing a window into during natural reading, the FIRE-fMRI technique allows the UC Davis group to look at all kinds of unanswered questions, Henderson said, such as whether language and grammar are handled by a specific part of the brain, and whether the brain anticipates upcoming words as we read. These discoveries would have implications not just for human psychology but also for artificial intelligence, he said.

The research has potential implications for understanding dyslexia and other reading deficits, Henderson said.

Explore further: After learning new words, brain sees them as pictures

Related Stories

After learning new words, brain sees them as pictures

March 24, 2015
When we look at a known word, our brain sees it like a picture, not a group of letters needing to be processed. That's the finding from a Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, ...

Complex learning dismantles barriers in the brain

March 15, 2016
Biology lessons teach us that the brain is divided into separate areas, each of which processes a specific sense. But findings to be published in eLife show we can supercharge it to be more flexible.

How can we stlil raed words wehn teh lettres are jmbuled up?

March 14, 2013
Researchers in the UK have taken an important step towards understanding how the human brain 'decodes' letters on a page to read a word. The work will help psychologists unravel the subtle thinking mechanisms involved in ...

Researchers find brain activity related to individual differences in reading comprehension

November 6, 2013
What makes a good reader? First, you have to know how to read the words on a page and understand them—but there's a higher-level step to reading comprehension. You have to tie together the words over time, maintaining their ...

Reading can improve your mental flexibility

March 3, 2016
Experiments conducted by the University of Liverpool's Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRILS) have found that literary reading could help increase mental flexibility.

Learning a second language may depend on the strength of brain's connections

January 19, 2016
Learning a second language is easier for some adults than others, and innate differences in how the various parts of the brain "talk" to one another may help explain why, according to a study published January 20 in the Journal ...

Recommended for you

Zebrafish study reveals clues to healing spinal cord injuries

July 25, 2017
Fresh insights into how zebrafish repair their nerve connections could hold clues to new therapies for people with spinal cord injuries.

Brain stimulation may improve cognitive performance in people with schizophrenia

July 24, 2017
Brain stimulation could be used to treat cognitive deficits frequently associated with schizophrenia, according to a new study from King's College London.

New map may lead to drug development for complex brain disorders, researcher says

July 24, 2017
Just as parents are not the root of all their children's problems, a single gene mutation can't be blamed for complex brain disorders like autism, according to a Keck School of Medicine of USC neuroscientist.

Bird songs provide insight into how developing brain forms memories

July 24, 2017
Researchers at the University of Chicago have demonstrated, for the first time, that a key protein complex in the brain is linked to the ability of young animals to learn behavioral patterns from adults.

Research identifies new brain death pathway in Alzheimer's disease

July 24, 2017
Alzheimer's disease tragically ravages the brains, memories and ultimately, personalities of its victims. Now affecting 5 million Americans, Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and a cure ...

Illuminating neural pathways in the living brain

July 24, 2017
Using light alone, scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried are now able to reveal pairs or chains of functionally connected neurons under the microscope. The new optogenetic method, named Optobow, ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Squirrel
not rated yet Apr 07, 2016
Toward Semantics in the Wild: Activation to Manipulable Nouns in Naturalistic Reading can be found here (paywall)
doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1480-15.2016

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.