Plasticity of white matter connectivity in phonetics experts

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Phonetics experts are highly trained to analyze and transcribe speech, both with respect to faster changing, phonetic features, and to more slowly changing, prosodic features. Previously we reported that, compared to non-phoneticians, phoneticians had greater local brain volume in bilateral auditory cortices and the left pars opercularis of Broca’s area, with training-related differences in the grey-matter volume of the left pars opercularis in the phoneticians group (Golestani et al. 2011). In the present study, we used diffusion MRI to examine white matter microstructure, indexed by fractional anisotropy, in (1) the long segment of arcuate fasciculus (AF_long), which is a well-known language tract that connects Broca’s area, including left pars opercularis, to the temporal cortex, and in (2) the fibers arising from the auditory cortices. Most of these auditory fibers belong to three validated language tracts, namely to the AF_long, the posterior segment of the arcuate fasciculus and the middle longitudinal fasciculus. We found training-related differences in phoneticians in left AF_long, as well as group differences relative to non-experts in the auditory fibers (including the auditory fibers belonging to the left AF_long). Taken together, the results of both studies suggest that grey matter structural plasticity arising from phonetic transcription training in Broca’s area is accompanied by changes to the white matter fibers connecting this very region to the temporal cortex. Our findings suggest expertise-related changes in white matter fibers connecting fronto-temporal functional hubs that are important for phonetic processing. Further studies can pursue this hypothesis by examining the dynamics of these expertise related grey and white matter changes as they arise during phonetic training.




Vandermosten, M., Price, C. J., & Golestani, N. (2016). Plasticity of white matter connectivity in phonetics experts. Brain Structure and Function, 221(7), 3825–3833.

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