On March 7, 2023, Alex White, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience & Behavior, published new co-authored research in the journal Current Biology, titled “Engaging in word recognition elicits highly specific modulations in visual cortex.” The paper examines the “visual word form area” (VWFA), a small region on the bottom left surface of the brain that is primarily responsible for recognizing written words. To test how this region functions, the researchers presented participants with strings of letters and visually similar shapes while their brain activity was being recorded with an MRI scanner. At different times, the stimuli were either relevant for a specific task or ignored by the participant. The researchers found that in the VWFA, the response to words was much greater when the participant was trying to read the words than when they ignored them. But activity in the VWFA was suppressed when the participant attended to non-letter shapes. This was quite surprising, as attended stimuli usually evoke stronger responses in the brain.
The VWFA may be special because it communicates with the other brain regions involved in spoken language, which Dr. White could also see in his data. In sum, the study revealed that the VWFA’s responses to stimuli are strongly dependent on the task being performed. The results suggest that language regions of the brain send targeted excitatory feedback into the VWFA only when the observer is trying to read. For more information on Prof. White’s research, see his lab website: https://visionlab.neuroscience.barnard.edu/.