How does reading expertise change the visual system? Here, we explored whether the visual system could develop dedicated perceptual mechanisms in early and intermediate visual cortex under the pressure for fast processing that is particularly strong in reading. We compared fMRI activations in Chinese participants with limited knowledge of French and in French participants with no knowledge of Chinese, exploiting these doubly dissociated reading skills as a tool to study the neural correlates of visual expertise. All participants viewed the same stimuli: words in both languages and matched visual controls, presented at a fast rate comparable with fluent reading. In the Visual Word Form Area, all participants showed enhanced responses to their known scripts. However, group differences were found in occipital cortex. In French readers reading French, activations were enhanced in left-hemisphere visual area V1, with the strongest differences between French words and their controls found at the central and horizontal meridian representations. Chinese participants, who were not expert French readers, did not show these early visual activations. In contrast, Chinese readers reading Chinese showed enhanced activations in intermediate visual areas V3v/hV4, absent in French participants. Together with our previous findings [Szwed, M., Dehaene, S., Kleinschmidt, A., Eger, E., Valabregue, R., Amadon, A., et al. Specialization for written words over objects in the visual cortex. Neuroimage, 56, 330–344, 2011], our results suggest that the effects of extensive practice can be found at the lowest levels of the visual system. They also reveal their cross-script variability: Alphabetic reading involves enhanced engagement of central and right meridian V1 representations that are particularly used in left-to-right reading, whereas Chinese characters put greater emphasis on intermediate visual areas.

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