Neural bases of rapid word learning
Humans are unique in developing large lexicons as their communication tool; to achieve this, they are able to learn new words rapidly. However, neural bases of this rapid learning, which may be an expression of a more general cognitive mechanism likely rooted in plasticity at cellular and synaptic levels, are not yet understood. In this update, the author highlights a selection of recent studies that attempted to trace word learning in the human brain noninvasively. A number of brain areas, most notably in hippocampus and neocortex, appear to take part in word acquisition. Critically, the currently available data not only demonstrate the hippocampal role in rapid encoding followed by slow-rate consolidation of cortical word memory traces but also suggest immediate neocortical involvement in the word memory trace formation. Echoing early behavioral studies in ultra-rapid word learning, the reviewed neuroimaging experiments can be taken to suggest that our brain may effectively form new cortical circuits online, as it gets exposed to novel linguistic patterns in the sensory input.