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Volume 23 Issue 1 (January 2020), Pages

Brain activity patterns of phonemic representations are atypical in beginning readers with family risk for dyslexia

Abstract There is an ongoing debate whether phonological deficits in dyslexics should be attributed to (a) less specified representations of speech sounds, like suggested by studies in young children with a familial risk for dyslexia, or (b) to an impaired access to these phonemic representations, as suggested by studies in adults with dyslexia. These conflicting findings are rooted in between study differences in sample characteristics and/or testing techniques. The current study uses the same multivariate functional MRI (fMRI) approach as previously used in adults with dyslexia to investigate phonemic representations in 30 beginning readers with a familial risk and 24 beginning readers without a familial risk of dyslexia, of whom 20 were later retrospectively classified as dyslexic. Based on fMRI response patterns evoked by listening to different utterances of /bA/ and /dA/ sounds, multivoxel analyses indicate that the underlying activation patterns of the two phonemes were distinct in children with a low family risk but not in children with high family risk. However, no group differences were observed between children that were later classified as typical versus dyslexic readers, regardless of their family risk status, indicating that poor phonemic representations constitute a risk for dyslexia but are not sufficient to result in reading problems. We hypothesize that poor phonemic representations are trait (family risk) and not state (dyslexia) dependent, and that representational deficits only lead to reading difficulties when they are present in conjunction with other neuroanatomical or—functional deficits.

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