These brain mess-ups can make us bad spellers

"When something goes wrong with spelling, it's not one thing that always happens," says Brenda Rapp. (Credit: Stewart Black/Flickr)

Stroke victims who’ve lost their spelling ability helped researchers pinpoint the unexpectedly separate parts of the brain that control how we write words.

In a report on the study in the journal Brain, neuroscientists link basic spelling difficulties for the first time with damage to seemingly unrelated regions of the brain, shedding new light on the mechanics of language and memory.

“When something goes wrong with spelling, it’s not one thing that always happens,” says lead author Brenda Rapp, professor of cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University. “Different things can happen and they come from different breakdowns in the brain’s machinery. Depending on what part breaks, you’ll have different symptoms.”

Rapp’s team studied the cases of 33 people left with spelling impairments after suffering strokes. Some had long-term memory difficulties, others working-memory issues.

brain images
A composite image showing the brain lesions of people with spelling difficulty after strokes. Right: An image of a healthy brain depicting the regions typically active during spelling. (Credit: Johns Hopkins University)

The patients with long-term memory difficulties can’t remember how to spell words they once knew and tend to make educated guesses. They may correctly guess a predictably spelled word like “camp,” but with a more unpredictable spelling like “sauce,” they might try “soss.” In severe cases, people trying to spell “lion” might offer things like “lonp,” “lint,” and even “tiger.”

Patients with working memory issues know their spelling but they have trouble choosing the correct letters or assembling them in the correct order: “Lion” might be “liot,” “lin,” “lino,” or “liont.”

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The team used computer mapping to chart the brain lesions of each individual and found that in the long-term memory cases, damage appeared on two areas of the left hemisphere, one towards the front of the brain and the other at the lower part of the brain towards the back. In working memory cases, the lesions were primarily also in the left hemisphere but in a very different area in the upper part of the brain towards the back.

“I was surprised to see how distant and distinct the brain regions are that support these two subcomponents of the writing process, especially two subcomponents that are so closely inter-related during spelling that some have argued that they shouldn’t be thought of as separate functions,” Rapp says. “You might have thought that they would be closer together and harder to tease apart.”

Though science knows quite a bit about how the brain handles reading, these findings offer some of the first clear evidence of how it spells, an understanding that could lead to improved behavioral treatments after brain damage and more effective ways to teach spelling.

Rapp’s coauthors are from Johns Hopkins, S.C.A. Associates in Rome, and the University of Trento in Italy. The National Institutes of Health supported the research.

Source: Johns Hopkins University