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Rapid microstructural plasticity in the cortical semantic network following a short language learning session

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Despite the clear importance of language in our life, our vital ability to quickly and effectively learn new words and meanings is neurobiologically poorly understood. Conventional knowledge maintains that language learning-especially in adulthood-is slow and laborious. Furthermore, its structural basis remains unclear. Even though behavioural manifestations of learning are evident near instantly, previous neuroimaging work across a range of semantic categories has largely studied neural changes associated with months or years of practice. Here, we address rapid neuroanatomical plasticity accompanying new lexicon acquisition, specifically focussing on the learning of action-related language, which has been linked to the brain's motor systems. Our results show that it is possible to measure and to externally modulate (using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of motor cortex) cortical microanatomic reorganisation after mere minutes of new word learning. Learning-induced microstructural changes, as measured by diffusion kurtosis imaging (DKI) and machine learning-based analysis, were evident in prefrontal, temporal, and parietal neocortical sites, likely reflecting integrative lexico-semantic processing and formation of new memory circuits immediately during the learning tasks. These results suggest a structural basis for the rapid neocortical word encoding mechanism and reveal the causally interactive relationship of modal and associative brain regions in supporting learning and word acquisition.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3001290
JournalPLoS Biology
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021

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