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Reading Harry Potter provides clues to brain activity, CMU researchers say

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Leila Wehbe, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon, talks about an experiment that used brain scans made in this brain-scanning MRI machine on campus, Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014. Volunteers were scanned as each word of a chapter of 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' was flashed for half a second onto a screen inside the machine. Images showing combinations of data and graphics were collected.
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The brain-scanning MRI machine that was used at Carnegie Mellon for an experiment on tracking brain data is seen on campus Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014. Volunteers were scanned as each word of a chapter of 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' was flashed for half a second onto a screen inside the machine. Images showing combinations of data and graphics were collected.
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AP/Keith Srakocic
Above, images from brain scans are displayed at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Sara Dabre, 17, of Murrysville, is studying neurology along with other advanced science concepts at the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences, hosted by Carnegie Mellon.

Reading sets off a flurry of brain activity, and Carnegie Mellon University researchers are using Harry Potter books to better understand what happens when we connect words and phrases with the ideas, representations and interpretations associated with them.

In research published Wednesday in the scientific journal PLoS ONE, a team led by computer scientist Tom Mitchell of Carnegie Mellon’s Machine Learning Department shows that when a person reads a story, different parts of the brain handle the elements that go into processing what is read.

Their approach is being lauded as a more realistic way to unravel the mysteries of the mind. Leila Wehbe, the graduate student who conducted much of the research, said those methods could reveal what’s happening in the brains of poor readers and people with dyslexia.

“It’s nice to study language in the same way you use it in everyday life,” said Wehbe. “When you do something as complicated as reading, you see the letter, identify the words, find the meaning of the words in the memory, form sentences and follow the story. Different regions of your brain are processing these different properties,” she said.

To do the study, the team placed eight volunteers in a functional MRI machine with a screen that allowed them to read a passage from Chapter 9 of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” quickly but one word at a time.

As participants read about Harry getting double-crossed by Draco Malfoy or learning that he has natural Quidditch skills, the MRI measured blood flow to various parts of the person’s brain.

Comparing which parts of the brain were active with a version of the text that was annotated with all the different aspects of reading comprehension, the researchers were able to pinpoint different areas of the brain that register syntax, how words and phrases make up a sentence and semantics, the meaning of those words and phrases.

For example, regions of the right temporo-parietal cortex, an area near the back of the brain, were active when readers were determining sentence length.

These regions also are associated with verbal memory and are more active in people who are good readers.

As subjects read about characters moving in the story, the posterior temporal cortex/angular gyrus, also located in the back of the brain, was active. This is the same area that is active when we actually see and understand that something is moving, said Wehbe.

Other researchers say Carnegie Mellon’s method of natural reading has potential. It’s been used to understand how vision leads to interpretation using movies rather than images.

“I think this is a very promising approach,” said Evelina Fedorenko, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital who studies language using functional MRI.

She said it’s been a challenge in neuroscience to understand which parts of the brain lead to comprehension and understanding of what we read, view and hear.

“High-level regions care about meaning,” she said. “There’s a lot of open questions.”

The next steps for the Mitchell research team are to do the same study on more subjects and to start looking at the brains of people with reading disorders, said Wehbe.

Given the popularity of the Harry Potter books, finding volunteers may not be a problem.

Megha Satyanarayana is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7991 or [email protected].

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