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Brain input into language

Specific language impairment (SLI) — delayed or disordered development for no apparent reason — can have a profound negative impact on all aspects of life. Funded by the EU, a study has investigated the development of linguistic skills in Hebrew-speaking children.
Brain input into language
Children's language skills continue to develop during school years when there are massive concurrent changes in both white and grey matter of the brain. Prior to the project 'The development of neural systems for language' (DNLP), knowledge of neurological deficits underlying impairments was limited despite research on clinical combinatorial syntactic and morphological deficits.

DNLP researchers aimed to bridge this gap by applying a multimodal approach. They combined functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), MRI for microscopic details about tissue architecture, and a battery of cognitive tests. The study group consisted of young adults and school children.

The project focus was motivated by scientific and clinical considerations as combinatorial language skills are at the very core of human ability to communicate — that is, combining structural units into complex phrases and sentences.

Project members developed a functional localiser for the identification of brain regions involved in language comprehension and verbal working memory. As a result, the researchers discovered that signal correlated noise is a better baseline for speech processing than reversed speech.

A series of cognitive tests probed semantic and phonological fluency, verbal working memory, phonological awareness, naming, production of inflectional and derivational morphology, and syntactic processing. The tests were also applied to adults with developmental stuttering, dyslexics, those with little exposure to print and a control group of typically developed speakers. At the end of the project term, similar measures in multiple sclerosis patients and stroke patients are being collected.

Imaging data collection was prevented by ethics authorities' refusal to allow scanning on healthy children. Hence, DNLP diverted ongoing research to dyslexic, stuttering and low-literacy adult populations. In parallel, two high profile publications were produced as a result of developmental studies on reading and language at Stanford University, in the United States.

Plans to continue the studies would mean that the stuttering and reading projects will be ongoing. The deliverables after the two-year project would provide a solid foundation to bridge neuroscience and linguistic research in Israel.

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