The aim of the present study was to examine the time course and scalp distribution of electrophysiological manifestations of the visual word recognition mechanism. Event-related potentials (ERPs) elicited by visually presented lists of words were recorded while subjects were involved in a series of oddball tasks. The distinction between the designated target and nontarget stimuli was manipulated to induce a different level of processing in each session (visual, phonological/phonetic, phonological/lexical, and semantic). The ERPs of main interest in this study were those elicited by nontarget stimuli. In the visual task the targets were twice as big as the nontargets. Words, pseudowords, strings of consonants, strings of alphanumeric symbols, and strings of forms elicited a sharp negative peak at 170 msec (N170); their distribution was limited to the occipito-temporal sites. For the left hemisphere electrode sites, the N170 was larger for orthographic than for nonorthographic stimuli and vice versa for the right hemisphere. The ERPs elicited by all orthographic stimuli formed a clearly distinct cluster that was different from the ERPs elicited by nonorthographic stimuli. In the phonological/phonetic decision task the targets were words and pseudowords rhyming with the French word vitrail, whereas the nontargets were words, pseudowords, and strings of consonants that did not rhyme with vitrail. The most conspicuous potential was a negative peak at 320 msec, which was similarly elicited by pronounceable stimuli but not by nonpronounceable stimuli. The N320 was bilaterally distributed over the middle temporal lobe and was significantly larger over the left than over the right hemisphere. In the phonological/lexical processing task we compared the ERPs elicited by strings of consonants (among which words were selected), pseudowords (among which words were selected), and by words (among which pseudowords were selected). The most conspicuous potential in these tasks was a negative potential peaking at 350 msec (N350) elicited by phonologically legal but not by phonologically illegal stimuli. The distribution of the N350 was similar to that of the N320, but it was broader and including temporo-parietal areas that were not activated in the “rhyme” task. Finally, in the semantic task the targets were abstract words, and the nontargets were concrete words, pseudowords, and strings of consonants. The negative potential in this task peaked at 450 msec. Unlike the lexical decision, the negative peak in this task significantly distinguished not only between phonologically legal and illegal words but also between meaningful (words) and meaningless (pseudowords) phonologically legal structures. The distribution of the N450 included the areas activated in the lexical decision task but also areas in the fronto-central regions. The present data corroborated the functional neuro-anatomy of word recognition systems suggested by other neuroimaging methods and described their timecourse, supporting a cascade-type process that involves different but interconnected neural modules, each responsible for a different level of processing word-related information.

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