Neuroimaging reveals automatic speech coding during perception of written word meaning

Benjamin Xu*, Jordan Grafman, William Davis Gaillard, Marianna Spanaki, Kenji Ishii, Lyn Balsamo, Milan Makale, William H. Theodore

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

21 Scopus citations


The extent to which visual word perception engages speech codes (i.e., phonological recoding) remains a crucial question in understanding mechanisms of reading. In this study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques combined with behavioral response measures to examine neural responses to focused versus incidental phonological and semantic processing of written words. Three groups of subjects made simple button-pressing responses in either phonologically (rhyming-judgment) or semantically (category-judgment) focused tasks or both tasks with identical sets of visual stimuli. In the phonological tasks, subjects were given both words and pseudowords separated in different scan runs. The baseline task required feature search of scrambled letter strings created from the stimuli for the experimental conditions. The results showed that cortical regions associated with both semantic and phonological processes were strongly activated when the task required active processing of word meaning. However, when subjects were actively processing the speech sounds of the same set of written words, brain areas typically engaged in semantic processing became silent. In addition, subjects who performed both the rhyming and the semantic tasks showed diverse and significant bilateral activation in the prefrontal, temporal, and other brain regions. Taken together, the pattern of brain activity provides evidence of a neural basis supporting the theory that in normal word reading, phonological recoding is automatic and facilitates semantic processing of written words, while rapid comprehension of word meaning requires devoted attention. These results also raise questions about including multiple cognitive tasks in the same neuroimaging sessions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)859-870
Number of pages12
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2002

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

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