Does "lete" rhyme with "keat"?

This question about two imaginary words makes the brain perform a task that is crucial for language abilities - and scientists reported Thursday that men's and women's brains do it differently.The study provides new evidence of sex differences in the brain and bolsters the idea that the brain concentrates language-related jobs on its left side much more in men than in women. Previous research on the language issue has been inconclusive.

To answer the rhyme question, the brain must break each word into its individual sounds, a key task for reading and other language abilities.

The new study says that in men, this job is concentrated on the left side of the brain, while in women it is shared almost equally between both sides.

Despite this difference, men and women did the task equally well in the study, showing that "the brain has great versatility in processing language and in reading," said researcher Sally Shaywitz.

The study is "an extremely important milestone in our understanding of language ability," said G. Reid Lyon, director of extramural research programs in learning disabilities at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The institute supported the work with grants.

Lyon said the results suggest women have a brain reserve for language ability that can help in case the left side of the brain is damaged or malfunctions.

That might help women recover better from language problems caused by strokes and explain why girls with a reading disability end up reading better than boys with the same problem, he said.

The study, in which volunteers' brains were scanned as they did a variety of tasks, shows that scientists can track where specific language tasks are done in the brain, Shaywitz said. That should give insight into problems like reading disabilities.

Shaywitz and her husband, Bennett Shaywitz, are co-directors of the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention at the Yale University School of Medicine. The Shaywitzes and colleagues present the work in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

They studied 19 men and 19 women with a new technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, which can show which parts of the brain are being activated while a person does a particular task.

One task performed by the volunteers was to judge whether two nonsense words like "lete" and "keat" rhyme. The scientists measured the activation of a particular area found on both sides of the brain near the temple.