New Center at Northwestern to Study Language in Our Brains

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I’m a grad student, and my big research goal is to understand how language is organized in our brains. Language is arguably the only cognitive faculty we possess that really distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom: most animals can communicate in some fashion - bees dance, dogs bark, birds sing - but none of that truly constitutes language usage. Language is so much bigger than that!

Most people know tens of thousands of words, which can be combined to form an infinite number of unique sentences, all of which are somehow comprehensible to competent users of a language starting at a very early age. As grandiose as that sounds, it makes a lot more sense when considering the vast amounts of information we have to send and receive every day.

It goes without saying, then, that losing the ability to use even part of our language faculties is a really big deal. To pursue my research, I work in a lab studying aphasia, which is a neurological disorder where language is specifically impaired, but other cognitive faculties are relatively spared (I touched on this a couple of weeks ago in a post about swearing). Aphasia is most often caused by a stroke or head injury, but can also be brought on by certain types of dementia. Importantly, aphasia doesn’t result from sensory or motor deficits – if you have a broken jaw or hearing loss, you may have trouble producing or comprehending language, but you wouldn’t be considered aphasic.

In a lot of people with aphasia, the language impairment is on the production side, leading to deficits that can range from mild word-finding issues (like when a word is on the tip of your tongue, but a lot more often) to complete mutism. Other people with aphasia have more trouble comprehending language: they can often speak fluently, but their utterances lack meaning (sometimes called “word salad”), and they might have trouble understanding what other people are saying as well. In reality, most people with aphasia have issues with both production and comprehension. Current estimates suggest that there are a million people living with aphasia in America, yet to date we haven’t been able to find a reliable way to help them recover their ability to use language.

Northwestern University is on the front lines in the battle against aphasia. My adviser, Dr. Cynthia K. Thompson, runs the Aphasia & Neurolinguistics Research Lab (where I work) in the Northwestern School of Communications. She has done pioneering work showing that our brains are capable of changing and recovering after stroke or injury. She recently earned our lab a $12 million NIH grant to develop a new Center for the Neurobiology of Language, in collaboration with researchers at Boston University, Harvard University, and Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Thompson and her colleagues plan to identify specific signs - both behavioral and in the brain - that can predict recovery patterns in people with aphasia, and then develop treatments that can exploit those recovery predictors. For instance, they plan to investigate how blood flow in certain parts of the brain might impact recovery of language, and how training people with aphasia to use complex forms of language (like long, passive sentences) can lead to improvements in simpler forms.

Language is one of those abilities that make us uniquely human, so aphasia can obviously be a very devastating disorder. That there are ways to predict how our brains can change and recover, even after acquiring a disorder like aphasia, is really cool. Ultimately, the goal of everyone studying aphasia is to help people living with the condition, and this is going to be a great opportunity for us to do just that.

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