Scientists monitor brain activity during natural reading

"By tracking their eye movements as they read natural paragraphs, we can know which word they are attending to," said researcher John Henderson.
By Brooks Hays   |   April 7, 2016 at 11:27 AM
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DAVIS, Calif., April 7 (UPI) -- For the first time, researchers have been able to monitor brain activity of a person naturally reading texts -- as opposed to just words on a cue card.

Neurologists hope the breakthrough will allow a better understanding of how the brain reads and the causes of learning disabilities like dyslexia.

"It's a key advance in understanding reading in the brain, because people are just reading normally," John Henderson, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis, said in a news release.

Traditionally, functional magnetic resonance imaging hasn't been fast enough to keep up with the act of natural reading. But Henderson and his colleagues were able to work around this problem by combining fMRI and eye-tracking technology. The scientists dubbed their novel approach "FiRE" fMRI.

As study participants read text inside the fMRI machine, eye-tracking cameras reveal which word the reader is focusing on, allowing researchers to match the reading process to the changing brain images.

"By tracking their eye movements as they read natural paragraphs, we can know which word they are attending to, and see the neural signal for fixation on each word," Henderson said.

As test subjects read, researchers measured considerable activity in the regions of the brain responsible for object manipulation and executing physical actions. The findings lend support to the theory of reading that suggests the brain recalls images of real, tangible objects -- as opposed to abstract symbols -- when processing nouns.

The new research was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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