Background

The ability to comprehend language is uniquely human and differentiates us from all other species. We are capable of comprehending language due to the evolutionary development of brain structures related to language and higher-order cognitive abilities (i.e., executive functions), as well as the functional and structural connections between these brain regions. Over the years, humans also invented the written language, which includes reading and writing, in order to document information and transfer it between geographical places. Starting from pictographs and moving on to letters, written language created a new challenge for the human brain: How can we translate abstract graphemes (letters) into phonemes (sounds)? Although written language is a relatively new human invention (approximately 5000 years old), this ability demands that the human brain engage neural circuits related to other sensory modalities, such as visual processing, and include these regions in the reading neural network. Thus began the new horizon of reading and literacy.

However, do these neural connections come naturally to all of us? Is it possible that for some, the connections between the different modalities are more challenging to form than for others? Is there a critical stage in development to form these connections? Is there a difference between a lack of environmental exposure for written materials (illiteracy) and an existence of biological difficulty to acquire reading (i.e., dyslexia)? And importantly, what can we do to help?

Our center considers answers to these questions and others, using neuroimaging tools that enable us to collect objective data at different stages of development during language, literacy, and reading tasks.