Current theories of reading are divided between dual-route accounts, which propose that separable processes subserve word recognition for orthographically regular and irregular strings, and connectionist models, which propose a single mechanism mapping form to meaning. These theories make distinct predictions about the processing of acronyms, which can be orthographically illegal and yet familiar, as compared with the processing of pseudowords, which are regular but unfamiliar. This study examined whether acronyms are processed like pseudowords and words. Event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded as subjects viewed familiar and unfamiliar acronyms, words, pseudowords, illegal strings, and - as the targets of the substantive behavioral task - proper names. Familiar acronyms elicited repetition effects on the N400 component, a functionally specific index of semantic activation processes; repetition effects for familiar acronyms were similar in magnitude, timing, and scalp distribution to those for words and pseudowords. The similarity of the brain response to familiar-but-illegal and unfamiliar-but-legal classes of stimuli is inconsistent with predictions of dual-route models of reading.
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