Rapid Cortical Plasticity Induced by Active Associative Learning of Novel Words in Human Adults

Alexandra M. Razorenova, Boris V. Chernyshev, Anastasia Yu Nikolaeva, Anna V. Butorina, Andrey O. Prokofyev, Nikita B. Tyulenev, Tatiana A. Stroganova

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Human speech requires that new words are routinely memorized, yet neurocognitive mechanisms of such acquisition of memory remain highly debatable. Major controversy concerns the question whether cortical plasticity related to word learning occurs in neocortical speech-related areas immediately after learning, or neocortical plasticity emerges only on the second day after a prolonged time required for consolidation after learning. The functional spatiotemporal pattern of cortical activity related to such learning also remains largely unknown. In order to address these questions, we examined magnetoencephalographic responses elicited in the cerebral cortex by passive presentations of eight novel pseudowords before and immediately after an operant conditioning task. This associative procedure forced participants to perform an active search for unique meaning of four pseudowords that referred to movements of left and right hands and feet. The other four pseudowords did not require any movement and thus were not associated with any meaning. Familiarization with novel pseudowords led to a bilateral repetition suppression of cortical responses to them; the effect started before or around the uniqueness point and lasted for more than 500 ms. After learning, response amplitude to pseudowords that acquired meaning was greater compared with response amplitude to pseudowords that were not assigned meaning; the effect was significant within 144–362 ms after the uniqueness point, and it was found only in the left hemisphere. Within this time interval, a learning-related selective response initially emerged in cortical areas surrounding the Sylvian fissure: anterior superior temporal sulcus, ventral premotor cortex, the anterior part of intraparietal sulcus and insula. Later within this interval, activation additionally spread to more anterior higher-tier brain regions, and reached the left temporal pole and the triangular part of the left inferior frontal gyrus extending to its orbital part. Altogether, current findings evidence rapid plastic changes in cortical representations of meaningful auditory word-forms occurring almost immediately after learning. Additionally, our results suggest that familiarization resulting from stimulus repetition and semantic acquisition resulting from an active learning procedure have separable effects on cortical activity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number895
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - 11 Sep 2020


  • associative learning
  • cortical plasticity
  • familiarization
  • MEG
  • repetition suppression
  • semantic learning
  • word semantics


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