Nature 461, 983-986 (15 October 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08461; Received 10 June 2009; Accepted 26 August 2009

An anatomical signature for literacy

Manuel Carreiras1,2,3,4, Mohamed L. Seghier5, Silvia Baquero6, Adelina Estévez4, Alfonso Lozano6, Joseph T. Devlin7 & Cathy J. Price5

  1. Basque Center on Cognition Brain and Language, Donostia-San Sebastián 20009, Spain
  2. IKERBASQUE, Basque Foundation for Science, Bilbao 48011, Spain
  3. Departamento de Filología Vasca, Universidad del País Vasco, Bilbao 48940, Spain
  4. Universidad de La Laguna, Tenerife 38055, Spain
  5. Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, Institute of Neurology, University College London, London WC1N 3BG, UK
  6. Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá 3165000, Colombia
  7. Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences, University College London, London WC1E 6BT, UK

Correspondence to: Manuel Carreiras1,2,3,4Cathy J. Price5 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to M.C. (Email: m.carreiras@bcbl.eu) or C.J.P. (Email: c.price@fil.ion.ucl.ac.uk).

Language is a uniquely human ability that evolved at some point in the roughly 6,000,000 years since human and chimpanzee lines diverged1, 2. Even in the most linguistically impoverished environments, children naturally develop sophisticated language systems3. In contrast, reading is a learnt skill that does not develop without intensive tuition and practice. Learning to read is likely to involve ontogenic structural brain changes4, 5, 6, but these are nearly impossible to isolate in children owing to concurrent biological, environmental and social maturational changes. In Colombia, guerrillas are re-integrating into mainstream society and learning to read for the first time as adults. This presents a unique opportunity to investigate how literacy changes the brain, without the maturational complications present in children. Here we compare structural brain scans from those who learnt to read as adults (late-literates) with those from a carefully matched set of illiterates. Late-literates had more white matter in the splenium of the corpus callosum and more grey matter in bilateral angular, dorsal occipital, middle temporal, left supramarginal and superior temporal gyri. The importance of these brain regions for skilled reading was investigated in early literates, who learnt to read as children. We found anatomical connections linking the left and right angular and dorsal occipital gyri through the area of the corpus callosum where white matter was higher in late-literates than in illiterates; that reading, relative to object naming, increased the interhemispheric functional connectivity between the left and right angular gyri; and that activation in the left angular gyrus exerts top-down modulation on information flow from the left dorsal occipital gyrus to the left supramarginal gyrus. These findings demonstrate how the regions identified in late-literates interact during reading, relative to object naming, in early literates.