Discovering the Neural Processes of Language

NYU Abu Dhabi's Neuroscience of Language Laboratory looks at neurological brain activity to better understand the way that the brain processes language.

NYU Abu Dhabi's Neuroscience of Language Laboratory, which opened its doors in April 2012, was designed with a unique proposition — to integrate linguistic theory and psycholinguistic models with observed neurological activity of the brain in an effort to better understand the way that the brain processes language.

The fields of linguistics, psycholinguistics, and neurolinguistics are currently considered quasi-independent fields with different goals and methods of study; however, investigators at NYUAD's Neuroscience of Language Laboratory believe that these fields cannot be fully successful in isolation. As such, the Lab's experiments will be set up to test specific hypotheses and linguistic models while comparing the brain's response on a millisecond by millisecond basis.

Principal investigators of the Lab, NYU New York professors in the fields of linguistics and psychology Alec Marantz, David Poeppel, and Liina Pylkkänen, are well suited to the task with decades of experience between them in the field of neurolinguistics. Poeppel focuses on understanding how a physical signal is organized in the brain and how it then contacts the language system; Marantz primarily investigates the construction of words; while Pylkkänen's work is primarily in the area of sentence composition — thus the team collectively provides a comprehensive range of expertise in the area.

The Lab features a state-of-the-art Magneto-encephalography (MEG) machine — a non-invasive brain scanner that is the most sensitive device that currently exists to monitor the human brain. The system is able to detect minute magnetic fluctuations in the brain with extreme sensitivity at millisecond resolution. A thermally insulated head casing is fitted with 208 superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) sensors, which can measure extremely subtle magnetic fields emitted from neural reactions in the brain, allowing for detection of both the level and region of brain activity associated with specific tasks. The system is operated in a magnetically shielded room that blocks out interfering external and ambient electromagnetic noise. NYUAD's MEG system, the first of its kind in the Gulf region, was custom built by Japan's Kanazawa Institute of Technology according to the Lab's specifications.

Before a subject lies down to place his or her head in the system, a digital representation of the shape of the head is taken using a laser device to help align the location of brain activity picked up by sensors to the corresponding area of the brain. The digital laser system was specially designed so that it would not require the removal of a subject's head scarf.

"There are a number of special things about the machine here that are not available in other similar instruments," Marantz said. "One is that we'll be monitoring the position of the subject's head throughout the experiment; usually you get the position once, and you hope the subject stays still. By monitoring continuously, we can adjust for the movement of the head — which makes it much easier when studying children."

The Lab will run experiments ranging from studying subjects' auditory and visual processing through passive listening of stories or viewing of images to more active question-and-answer-based experiments. The aim is to better understand how the brain performs communication-related tasks from understanding incoming signals to constructing outgoing words and sentences.

The study of Arabic in the field of neurolinguistics tends to focus on standardized Arabic, making specific dialects, such as Emirati Arabic, uncharted territory.

Alec Marantz, Principal Investigator of NYUAD's Neuroscience of Language Laboratory

"In your head, you have stored a bunch of words — it's like a dictionary in your head," Poeppel explained. "When I'm talking to you, you recognize those words, but the information that comes in is just mechanical vibrations in your ear. You have to translate that, which is a physical signal, into some kind of neural code that can look things up inside your head and that can be used, for instance, to combine words and say words."

Abu Dhabi is a good environment for the MEG machine, according to Marantz. The Lab's location in the NYUAD Center for Science and Engineering (CSE) is relatively peaceful, without the external disturbances and vibrations that can be found in other cities. However, even more enticing is the opportunity to study languages that are generally understudied and even some that have never been previously studied. The study of Arabic in the field of neurolinguistics, for example, tends to focus on standardized Arabic, making specific dialects, such as Emirati Arabic, uncharted territory.

Studying a range of languages that have different forms and structures will also allow the research team to compare the similarities and differences in how the brain processes these languages. So far, they have found that, despite the differences in language form, the neural processes used in subjects for language communication are very similar — an intriguing area to further investigate.

The research team will collaborate with members of the United Arab Emirates University's (UAEU) Neuroscience of Language Laboratory on research projects. Having committed to sharing resources and technical expertise, this agreement will particularly support NYUAD's lab with projects related to Arabic-language study. Current NYUNY PhD student Meera Al Kaabi is an Emirati who will also be a part of the research team. Students at both NYUAD and UAEU will be encouraged to participate in research initiatives in a range of capacities.

In addition to advancing society's knowledge of language and the brain, there are a number of specific applications that could benefit from this research. Clinical applications include individualized speech diagnosis and therapy for those with developmental language disorders or for those recovering from stroke or injury. Learning how humans process language can also help with improved engineering of devices related to automatic speech recognition.

But above all, researching this subject may provide greater insights into our self-identity and humanity. According to Poeppel, "One of the most essential things that makes you human is your ability to use language, so understanding that is exciting in its own right."

This article originally appeared in NYUAD's 2012 Research Report (12MB PDF).