Research Highlight

Learning to read boosts visual brain

doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.127 Published online 24 September 2019

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Learning to read activates the same areas of the brain that process visual objects such as houses, faces and tools, research reveals1. Instead of negatively affecting brain responses, reading enhances brain responses to such objects.

Learning to read helps develop a letter- and word-selective brain region known as the visual word form area (VWFA), which, according to some researchers, is thought to take up space that is otherwise available for processing objects such as faces, houses and tools. 

To find out what happens in the brain when one learns to read, an international research team, including researchers from the Centre of Biomedical Research and the University of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, and the University of Hyderabad in Telangana ‒ all from India ‒ trained 29 completely illiterate adults from two rural villages near Lucknow in Northern India.

In a six-month training course, they were taught to read and write the alphabet, two-letter and three-letter words, and sentences including basic grammar rules such as verbs, nouns, pronouns, tenses and genders in Devanagari script, the writing system for Hindi, which is the local language.

Brain scans before and after the training showed that brain tissue for responding to non-word objects did not shrink in the trained people. The researchers found that the brain activation for letters and faces was more similar in readers than in non-readers, particularly in the left part of brain.

Learning to read, they say, sharpens visual brain responses beyond reading, positively affecting the part of the brain that is involved in image processing.


1. Hervais-Adelman, A. et al.  Learning to read recycles visual cortical networks without destruction. Sci. Adv.5 (2019) doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aax0262