Language, reading and developmental disorders
Natural language and reading are two critically important and unique human abilities. A major enterprise is to understand how language acquisition, comprehension and production take place in the human brain. Another major endeavour is to understand the cognitive and brain processes involved in reading (decoding and comprehension) and in learning to read. To tackle these challenges, we investigate natural language (e.g., oral language, sign language) across the life span (infants children, adults) and reading in different populations (e.g., children and adults) with standard trajectories but also special populations (e.g., illiterates, deaf, children with atypical development etc.) .
In addition, the study of developmental disorders and learning disabilities has always been a source of information about the cognitive and brain processes involved in language and learning processes (e.g., learning to read): Understanding atypical development and functioning can inform understanding of typical function.
Developmental and learning disorders such as specific language impairment (SLI), dyslexia and dyscalculia have serious emotional, personal, educational and social consequences. They also entail important costs for the society. Research into these disorders will facilitate improved tools for diagnosis, early detection and treatment. The research on neuromarkers from a very early age (e.g., infants) for early detection of developmental disabilities can open possibilities for developing interventions that could prevent or minimize the impact of these disabilities. This research can also inform the educational community for designing educational policies and training plans. Learning and education are intimately related to the development of neural mechanisms.
The study of various disorders, such as SLI, dyslexia and dyscalculia, permits a comparative analysis of various components and aspects of language development. In addition, longitudinal studies of typical and atypical development from infancy might uncover potential early markers of language disorders and learning disabilities that may appear at school age (e.g., dyslexia). The combined expertise of different groups of the center is thus brought to bear on populations with problems in language development, resulting in knowledge with important applications.
We also take advantage of information technologies for the development of computerized diagnostic and training tools for children with different learning disabilities (i.e. dyslexia, dyscalculia, SLI). The aim is to develop computerized tools with tasks designed according to the latest research knowledge on language, reading and other cognitive processes. We investigate effects of training packages on cognitive functioning and brain activity of children with special educational needs in monolingual and multilingual contexts.
Multilingualism and second language learning
Research on cognitive and brain mechanisms of language acquisition and processing (comprehension and production) in bilingual and multilingual individuals, with different ages of acquisition of their second language (e.g., native or late learners), with different degrees of proficiency in their second language, with languages of the same or different modalities (e.g. oral and sign languages), and the impact of these on cortical plasticity is the main focus of this line. Special attention is paid to multilingualism within the school system and to the development of new educational technologies.
Phonology, morphology and syntax are the aspects of language most difficult to master when a second language is learned late in life. The specific characteristics (e.g., morphological and syntactic) of Basque and Spanish offer a unique opportunity to investigate the acquisition, processing and the underlying brain mechanisms of the two languages as a first or second language. In order to investigate these and other questions, studies of the cortical representation in monolingual and bilingual participants at different ages (infants, children, young adults and the elderly) and different levels of skill ranging from beginning learners to fluent speakers are carried out using behavioral and neuroimaging techniques.
Children can learn two or more languages at very early ages, and people continue learning new languages throughout life, so we are all increasingly multilingual. This multilingual education involves, among other things, learning to read and calculate in L1 and L2. We investigate the relationship between specific cognitive functions and the changes in neural activity that take place in the course of learning to read and math learning in L2 with specific attention to individual differences and the effects of L1. We also investigate when and how it is optimal to introduce a second language at school, particularly when L1 and L2 have very different orthographies (e.g., English–a deep orthography and Spanish–a shallow orthography). In addition, we investigate the effects of different second language teaching methods on brain plasticity and cognition. Modern societies increasingly demand education based on scientific evidence. Second language learning and learning to read in a second language are important skills in classroom settings that can benefit from new discoveries on human cognition research in the laboratory.
Language switching and language control are essential in multilinguals. Several studies have suggested that being bilingual, and the practice in language control that comes with it, improves general cognitive control capacities, even in non-verbal tasks. However, recent data do not seem to replicate these findings. We investigate the cognitive and brain mechanisms underlying language control and general cognitive control by comparing monolinguals and bilinguals (balanced and unbalanced bilinguals) in several paradigms using different techniques. More generally, we investigate the consequences (if any) of being bilingual or multilingual for mind and brain.
Neurodegeneration, brain damage and healthy aging: Language and Cognition
Neurodegenerative diseases are the center of much attention, not only because of their scientific interest, but also due to their social implications. Among these disorders, Alzheimer and Parkinson’s diseases are perhaps the best known. Symptoms in various forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease or semantic dementia, include important cognitive aspects such as language. The phases of deterioration in dementia of the different components of language and potential biomarkers linked to language are being investigated.
In particular, in Alzheimer’s disease and in mild cognitive impairment, language disorders are some of the earliest expressions of the disease and constitute the most frequent cognitive difficulty after memory problems. Language deterioration is also present in Parkinson’s disease. Some components of language could therefore potentially be found as early markers of these diseases. Language components that may be most sensitive to decline in different types of dementia (Alzheimer Disease, Parkinson’s disease, Semantic Dementia, etc.) and that could be susceptible to training and intervention are being researched.
In addition, deterioration of some components of language and other cognitive abilities (e.g., executive control, memory, cognitive reserve) is also present in normal aging, and this deterioration of cognitive abilities, including language, could be potentially modulated by bilingualism or second language learning. We investigate the relationship between specific cognitive functions and the changes in neural activity that take place in healthy aging bilinguals and monolinguals. This research line examines whether learning a new language and/or training other different cognitive processes such as attention or math processing will affect these changes.
We also investigate cognitive effects and brain plasticity related to brain damage (e.g., brain tumours, epilepsy, strokes, etc). In particular, we investigate grey and white matter plasticity by comparing presurgical and postsurgical mapping of language and other cognitive functions such as mathematical cognition and executive control. In addition, we study language functions through brain stimulation in the awake patient during surgical brain operations (e.g., tumour resection). We also investigate language processing (e.g., agrammatism) in aphasic patients, with special attention to bilingual patients of languages typologically very different in terms of morphology and syntax (e.g., Basque and Spanish). We also develop computerized diagnostic and training tools for aphasic patients that include tasks that are designed taking into account the specific features of the language in question.