To investigate how hearing status, sign language experience and task demands influence functional responses in the human superior temporal cortices (STC) we collected fMRI data from deaf and hearing participants (male and female), who either acquired sign language early or late in life. Our stimuli in all tasks were pictures of objects. We varied the linguistic and visuospatial processing demands in three different tasks that involved decisions about (1) the sublexical (phonological) structure of the British Sign Language (BSL) signs for the objects; (2) the semantic category of the objects; and (3) the physical features of the objects.
Neuroimaging data revealed that in participants who were deaf from birth, STC showed increased activation during visual processing tasks. Importantly, this differed across hemispheres. Right STC was consistently activated regardless of the task whereas left STC was sensitive to task demands. Significant activation was detected in the left STC only for the BSL phonological task. This task, we argue, placed greater demands on visuospatial processing than the other two tasks. In hearing signers, enhanced activation was absent in both left and right STC during all three tasks. Lateralisation analyses demonstrated that the effect of deafness was more task-dependent in the left than the right STC whereas it was more task-independent in the right than the left STC. These findings indicate how the absence of auditory input from birth leads to dissociable and altered functions of left and right STC in deaf participants.