Sehyr, Z.S., Midgley, K.J., Holcomb, P.J., Emmory, K., Plaut, D.C., and Behrmann, M. (2020). Unique N170 signatures to words and faces in deaf ASL signers reflect experience-specific adaptations during early visual processing. Neuropsychologia, 141, 107414.

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Abstract: Previous studies with deaf adults reported reduced N170 waveform asymmetry to visual words, a finding attributed to reduced phonological mapping in left-hemisphere temporal regions compared to hearing adults. An open question remains whether this pattern indeed results from reduced phonological processing or from general neurobiological adaptations in visual processing of deaf individuals. Deaf ASL signers and hearing nonsigners performed a same-different discrimination task with visually presented words, faces, or cars, while scalp EEG time-locked to the onset of the first item in each pair was recorded. For word recognition, the typical left-lateralized N170 in hearing participants and reduced left-sided asymmetry in deaf participants were replicated. The groups did not differ on word discrimination but better orthographic skill was associated with larger N170 in the right hemisphere only for deaf participants. Face recognition was characterized by unique N170 signatures for both groups, and deaf individuals exhibited superior face discrimination performance. Laterality or discrimination performance effects did not generalize to the N170 responses to cars, confirming that deaf signers are not inherently less lateralized in their electrophysiological responses to words and critically, giving support to the phonological mapping hypothesis. P1 was attenuated for deaf participants compared to the hearing, but in both groups, P1 selectively discriminated between highly learned familiar objects – words and faces versus less familiar objects – cars. The distinct electrophysiological signatures to words and faces reflected experience-driven adaptations to words and faces that do not generalize to object recognition.

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