Using behavioral, structural, and functional imaging techniques, we demonstrate contrasting effects of vocabulary knowledge on temporal and parietal brain structure in 47 healthy volunteers who ranged in age from 7 to 73 years. In the left posterior supramarginal gyrus, vocabulary knowledge was positively correlated with gray matter density in teenagers but not adults. This region was not activated during auditory or visual sentence processing, and activation was unrelated to vocabulary skills. Its gray matter density may reflect the use of an explicit learning strategy that links new words to lexical or conceptual equivalents, as used in formal education and second language acquisition. By contrast, in left posterior temporal regions, gray matter as well as auditory and visual sentence activation correlated with vocabulary knowledge throughout lifespan. We propose that these effects reflect the acquisition of vocabulary through context, when new words are learnt within the context of semantically and syntactically related words.

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