Issue 54, September 2014
bulletLanguage and the Brain
bulletDeciphering the Genetic Basis of Speech and Language Disorders
bulletInterview with Prof. Dr. Angela Friederici - Germany's Leading Expert in the Neurobiology of Language
bulletInnovation: Socio-Emotional Competency Through Gaming
bulletLanguage Research at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain
bulletThe Potsdam Research Institute for Multilingualism (PRIM)
Language and the Brain 

Are we entering the golden age of neuroscience? Will this decade represent the dawn of a new era that will revolutionize our understanding of how the human mind and brain work? While significant advancements in the field have been made over the past five to ten years, much work still remains for understanding our neural architecture - the networks of brain cells that facilitate our thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors. "As humans," President Obama stated last year, "we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter between our ears." 


Our understanding of the complex neural mechanisms underlying speech and language development, for example, is still fairly limited. With brain, language, and speech disorders affecting millions globally, acquiring a better understanding of the human mind is imperative. In April 2013, the Obama administration launched its Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies
(BRAIN) Initiative, which seeks to "uncover new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury."

 

This recent push to accelerate the pace and success of brain research worldwide is illustrated by other large-scale initiatives, such as Neurodata Without Borders (NWB) and the Human Brain Project (HBP). NWB, an initiative launched by prominent U.S. research institutions, aims to standardize neuroscience data on a global scale; the HBP, on the other hand, is a collaborative European research effort bringing together hundreds of scientists from 112 institutions in 24 countries and 12 research areas. 

 

From September 29 to October 1, 2014, the Human Brain Project will convene at Heidelberg University in Germany for the HBP's first annual summit. More than 360 participants spanning the globe from Austria to Israel will present their research findings in neuroscience, medicine, and computing as well as discuss the key challenges facing international collaborative brain research in the future. Heidelberg physicist Prof. Dr. Karlheinz Meier, a member of the HBP Board of Directors and co-leader of the Neuromorphic Computing sub-project, will direct this year's summit.
 

 


The remarkable ease with which young children master the complexities of language has long suggested that the capacity for language learning is rooted in our DNA. In 2001, Simon E. Fisher and co-workers at the University of Oxford discovered that mutations in the gene FOXP2 lead to severe speech and language difficulties, making this the first gene to be clearly linked to language ability.

In 2010, Prof. Fisher established the Language and Genetics Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The department is dedicated to investigating the genetic foundations of language and combines expertise in genetics, molecular cell biology, human neuroimaging, psychology, linguistics, and computer modeling. Researchers in the department are using FOXP2 as a molecular window into the genetics of speech and language. They are also searching for new language-related genes by analyzing the genetic code of children with disorders, such as dyslexia and autism, which affect language abilities.

The department is also pursuing other unusual avenues in the search for genetic influences on language. In most people, it is the left side of the brain that is responsible for language processing, but researchers don't understand the role genes play in making the two sides of the brain different. Looking at the DNA of families with many left-handed people may provide some answers to this conundrum.

Furthermore, by looking at synaesthesia - a fascinating condition in which letters and words trigger sensations of color - researchers hope to learn more about how the brain builds connections. Recent work from the department has shown that mutations in the gene TBR1 are a cause of autism. It has also identified genetic variants that may affect language and reading abilities. The department's innovative, interdisciplinary research promises to continue to build a clearer picture of how genes contribute to our species' unique linguistic abilities.

Source & Image: © Sarah Graham, Language and Genetics Department, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

  

 

Prof. Dr. Angela Friederici, Director of the Department of Neuropsychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, is an internationally acclaimed expert in linguistics and neuropsychology. A highly esteemed cognitive scientist, Prof. Dr. Friederici has received numerous scientific accolades, including the 1997 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation (DFG), the 2010 Johannes Gutenberg Endowed Professorship at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, and the 2010-2011 Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

In her interview with GCRI, Prof. Dr. Friederici discusses the human brain's unique capacity for language and how language acquisition is measured in infants before they are able to speak. She also explains why it is easier for young children than adults to learn foreign languages and how the brain benefits from multilingualism. To read the full interview, click here.

Prof. Dr. Friederici received her Ph.D. in Linguistics in 1976 from the University of Bonn and her Habilitation in Psychology in 1986 from Justus Liebig University Giessen. Career highlights include a Postdoc in Psychology at MIT from 1978 to 1979, a Research Associate position at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands from 1980 to 1989, and a professorship in Cognitive Science at the Freie Universitšt Berlin from 1989 to 1994. In 1994, she founded the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig (formerly the Max Planck Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience), where she has served as director ever since. Prof. Dr. Friederici is an honorary professor at the Universities of Leipzig (Psychology), Potsdam (Linguistics), and Berlin (Medicine) as well as a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, and the Academia Europaea.
 

Image: © Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences

 

 


 

How well a person interacts with others is strongly influenced by his or her socio-emotional competencies, such as an ability to recognize facial expressions of emotion. Such competencies vary significantly between individuals and can be severely impaired by disorders, such as autism, dementia, anorexia, and schizophrenia, as well as by language disorders and traumatic brain injuries. In these cases, individuals often suffer from severe socio-emotional dysfunction that hinders their success in everyday social interactions. 

Today, few intervention programs offer targeted diagnostic and training tools for improving socio-emotional competencies. Furthermore, many people often experience long waiting periods before receiving treatment. At the same time, individuals are also proactively seeking self-empowerment in their treatment regimens.

AFFECTIVE SIGNALS (AFS), a research-based spin-off from the Freie Universitšt Berlin (FU Berlin), is developing an evidence-based mental health care service, which enables patients and therapists to monitor and train socio-emotional competencies using digital tools. The start-up is developing a web service that will include version 2.0 of the serious game training SCOTT (SOCIAL COGNITION TRAINING TOOL), which aims to improve a user's perception and understanding of emotions. Through a variety of short films of social interactions, users watch actors display 40 different emotional states ranging from envy to enthusiasm to interpret facial express
ions, prosody, voices, language, and context. 

The start-up's team of multidisciplinary scientists and experts in the IT, game design, health care, and business fields is combining its research findings from psychology, neuroscience, and affective computing to build evidence-based, gamefied tools for patients, therapists, and anyone else interested in improving their socio-emotional competencies. AFFECTIVE SIGNALS is working together with therapists, researchers, caretakers, and patients to integrate digital health services into conventional psychiatric and neurological therapies as well as to improve therapeutic outcomes, care, and costs. AFS is actively seeking health care innovators who are interested in integrating state-of-the-art digital tools into their caregiving.

AFFECTIVE SIGNALS is funded, in part, by EXIST - a support program for university-based start-ups. EXIST is sponsored by Germany's Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy (BMWi). AFS' website will launch next month.

For more details, please contact: Nikos Green, Ph.D. at nikos.green@fu-berlin.de

Source & Image: © Dr. Nikos Green, AFFECTIVE SIGNALS, c/o Freie Universitšt Berlin, Affective Neuroscience & Psychology of Emotion

 

Source: Berlin School of Mind and Brain


Language is a paradigmatic topic for Mind and Brain studies at the crossroads of cultural and social sciences, structural linguistics, behavioral studies, philosophy, and neuroscience. The application of neurobiological methods to language research has become standard practice using EEG/ERP/MEG studies of temporal dynamics as well as high spatial resolution fMRI studies. Nonetheless, a significant gap still remains between the fine-tuned linguistic theories of complex and diverse language phenomena on the one hand and current neurobiological insights on the other.


The Berlin/Leipzig/Potsdam region is home to numerous research groups in the fields of both theoretical and experimental linguistics. These research groups are particularly active in the fields of reading and language comprehension, information structure, and language acquisition and development.

Language is a key research area at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain. This graduate research school offers an interdisciplinary, international doctoral program with excellent placements as well as postdoctoral research and career development opportunities. In October 2013, as a result of a highly successful funding bid through Germany's national Excellence Initiative, the school established its new two-year, English-language, research-based master's program "Mind and Brain" (M.Sc./M.A.).

To keep up to date via social media, please visit the school's profile on: Academia.edu, ResearchGate, Facebook, and Twitter. To watch a selection of related videos, click here.

Image: © Humboldt-Universitšt zu Berlin

 

Source: Prof. Dr. Harald Clahsen, Potsdam Research Institute for Multilingualism (PRIM), Universitšt Potsdam
 

The Potsdam Research Institute for Multilingualism (PRIM) is the first research institute in Germany that employs current psycholinguistic and neuro-cognitive experimental techniques to investigate the representation and processing of multiple languages in an individual's brain. The primary aim of PRIM's research is to achieve a better understanding of the temporal dynamics of multilingual language use, both at the micro level (by investigating the moment-by-moment time course of language production and comprehension) and at the macro level (by investigating multilingual individuals at different stages of language development). Core areas of language are investigated using both behavioral and physiological techniques, such as eye-movement monitoring and electroencephalography (EEG).

PRIM's research focuses on two linguistic domains: word-level grammatical phenomena (morphology) and sentence-level grammatical phenomena (syntax). The research at PRIM studies people who have learned or are learning more than one language, early and late multilinguals, language-unimpaired children and adults, as well as multilingual patients with language impairments. Besides its research activities, PRIM also offers knowledge transfer services for the dissemination of research on multilingualism to interested individuals as well as to kindergartens and schools.

PRIM has also established a number of national and international collaborations. Current collaborative research projects include a cooperation between PRIM and the Charitť hospital in Berlin to study language loss in older multilingual individuals and a three-year project studying language processing in German/Turkish bilinguals that is jointly funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (T‹BITAK). PRIM is funded by an Alexander von Humboldt professorship, which was awarded to Prof. Dr. Harald Clahsen.

For more information, please visit: 
www.uni-potsdam.de/prim.
 

Image: © AVZ - Multimedia - Thomas Roese

 

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