The Sciences

The Brain in Action: Windows into the Mysteries of Language Disorders

The IntersectionBy The IntersectionMar 10, 2011 5:17 AM


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This is a guest post composed at the NSF Science: Becoming the Messenger Workshop at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (UNL) by Autumn McIlraith. The field of communication disorders is full of unanswered questions. We want to know why some children struggle to speak fluently, and why others have difficulty learning to read. Why are some treatments effective, but others aren’t? Research in the field of speech and language disorders has traditionally used behavioral testing to evaluate the abilities of individuals with impairments, and to measure the effectiveness of interventions. However, behavioral testing has some limitations. Often, we can see the problem, but not where in the chain the breakdown occurred. For the child struggling to speak, was it planning the motor movements that was the issue, or was it putting together the words themselves? Brain imaging can help to answer these questions. It gives us a window into the hidden world of the brain, without actually opening up the skull and poking it. Techniques like functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), event-related brain potentials (ERP) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) allow us to look at brain activity, by measuring blood flow, or electrical or magnetic activity from neurons. These imaging techniques are completely noninvasive, and can be used with young children and in some cases even infants. Through brain imaging, we can observe the brain in action. When we look at the brain scan of a child struggling to speak, we hope to be able to see whether the issues lie in areas associated with motor speech planning, language processing, or maybe somewhere else entirely. If the child underwent treatment for his or her issues and seemed to show improvement, we could compare the brain activity before or after treatment, to evaluate its effectiveness. Speech and language researchers can benefit greatly from the expertise of brain imaging scientists. Collaboration between these areas in the future will help researchers to answer some exciting questions about the nature of speech and language impairments, and give us further insight into the marvelous complexity of the human brain. (For more information about a language lab involved in brain imaging research, visit the here and here)

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