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About the Project
'HSE University's Age-Mates'

2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of HSE University. Many of the university’s peers—those born in 1992—now work and study here. Thirty-year-old HSE graduates work in various fields, from business and fintech to IT and contemporary art. As part of the new ‘HSE University's Age-Mates’ project, some of them have shared their stories and talked about what they like about the university.

The new instalment of Age-Mates features Vardan Arutyunyan, junior researcher at the Center for Language and Brain and an HSE PhD student. In this interview, he explains how he came to work at the Center, why he chose to study brain mechanisms of speech impairment in children with autism and what he is striving to achieve in this field.

Why did you want to work at the Center for Language and Brain?

When I was studying at the Baltic Federal University, I became interested in neurolinguistics, a science that studies the relationship between language and the brain. This gave rise to a good question: where is it possible to carry out such research? Unfortunately, there aren’t many places in Russia where such research is done at a professional level. In Moscow, from my point of view, the only such place was, and remains, the HSE Center for Language and Brain. At that time, it was called the Laboratory of Neurolinguistics.

I contacted the director of the laboratory and asked if it was possible to study there. Then I did a one-month internship there in 2015. I remember that I was impressed that first-year students were immediately admitted into the laboratory and could start working and learn the methods we use. Each student was assigned to a staff member, with whom they did real research and experiments and observed the process from start to finish. That’s what I did for a month: I observed experiments, looking at things and doing things with my own hands. Then I returned home and graduated from the university. A few more years passed. Since this branch of science did not exist in Kaliningrad, I decided to move to Moscow to work at the Center for Language and Brain. In 2018, I became a research trainee. That year, I also started my postgraduate studies at HSE, from which I am preparing to graduate now.

What is your scientific topic?

I study children’s speech. In general, all my research is devoted to the brain mechanisms of speech impairment in children with autism spectrum disorders, or autism. I have no personal history with this problem. I’ve just always been interested in how the brain develops, the nervous system, and, in particular, I was interested in atypical development of the nervous system. While reading about it, I happened to come across some articles on autism, about the brains of autistic children in the first years of life. I began delving into it and have studied it ever since.

Have you published as a lead author in many high-ranking international scientific journals?

Three articles have already been released, and two more are set to be approved and published soon. Another one is in the submission process. I’m grateful to HSE For this. Back in Kaliningrad, I tried to apply for a PhD abroad and did not get in. Now, earning my PhD at HSE University, I realise that no foreign PhD program would have given me as much as I’ve gotten here. Abroad, PhD students are still treated as students. You attach yourself to a certain professor and do his projects. There’s no guarantee whatsoever that you’ll publish anything yourself.

At HSE University, first of all, I had access to the most modern equipment. Secondly, I had freedom: no one told me what I should do

I decided that I wanted to study the speech skills of children with autism using certain methods, although no one at the Center was doing this. I think that when I finish my PhD, I’ll end up with more articles published in foreign journals than many PhD students abroad have. For this, I am grateful to the HSE Center for Language and Brain.

Have you made any scientific discoveries?

Yes. For example, the Center is developing various standardized speech assessment tests that are the first of their kind for the Russian language. We patent them and received three patents in 2021 alone. One of these tests is the KORABLIK that makes it possible to evaluate the generation and understanding of speech at different linguistic levels (phonology, vocabulary, morpho-syntax and discourse). In fact, my first published articles described the speech profiles of Russian-speaking children with autism based on large samples. For the first time, we described the features of speech production and understanding in a large group of Russian-speaking children with autism using a test that takes into account significant psycho-linguistic parameters of the Russian language.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

For other studies (neurobiological), the children underwent various experiments using electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods. One specific example is our MRI study. There is an analysis called morphometry by which you can measure various structural parameters of the brain such as the volume of gray matter, its thickness and the folding of certain convolutions. We can extract all these parameters and see how, for example, the thickness of the gray matter differs in groups of typical children and children with autism. Or how the thickness of the gray matter in the speech areas of the brain in children with autism correlates with their speech skills - that is, with what we measured behaviorally using KORABLIK. The data is in the process of being published. The results are very interesting.

Is it possible to influence the development of speech skills in children with autism?

Both neuropsychologists and speech therapists work with autistic children and there are certain behavioural techniques for improving their speech and social skills. Strictly speaking, we don’t fully know how effective this is. At the biological level, large multicentre studies of biomarkers (longitudinal, with huge cohorts of children) are currently underway, in particular in the U.S. I will be doing such research - and specifically the identification of early biomarkers of autism - as a postdoc in the United States, where I will go after defending my dissertation.

What is a biomarker?

Autism is diagnosed by behavioural criteria at 3-4 years of age. A biomarker is a kind of objective measure that does not depend on the child’s behaviour - for example, what we measure in the brain. You can register the electrical activity of the brain or do an MRI. Such large studies are needed in order to identify early biomarkers of autism and diagnose this disorder in the first year of life, rather than waiting for behavioural manifestations at 3-4 years of age. And then you can follow how the biomarker changes as the child receives psychological and pedagogical assistance.

How are children selected for such studies?

Statistics show that one in 60 children in the general population is born with autism. At the same time, the risk increases for the second child in families where the first child has autism. The chance that the second child will have autism is 5-6 times higher than among the general population. They find, say, 400 such families that already have one child with autism and a second child was born. And from infancy, at 3-6-9 months, and so on until 3-4 years of age, when a diagnosis can be made, they do an electroencephalogram (if the goal is to identify biomarkers based on an EEG).

Suppose that at the age of 4, 50 of those 400 children were diagnosed with autism. That means 350 fall into the high-risk group, but do not have autism, while 50 fall into a different group (children with autism). Then they take another control group of 400 normal children and compare the EEGs of the different groups during the first year of life. Such studies have shown that the EEGs of children who were diagnosed with autism at 4 years old differed at as early as 6 months of age from the EEGs of the other groups of children. This is one type of biomarker that is used for early diagnosis. We know that the sooner intervention is started, the better it is for the child. The second type is for use in the clinic, when we measure brain activity and see if behavioural therapy affects this activity, whether indicators improve over time.

As a scientist, what ambitions do you have in your field?

I am primarily interested in speech and the brain mechanisms of speech. I would like to identify some biomarkers of speech disorders in autism so that it can be caught in the early stages, even before the child has begun to speak, simply by his brain indicators. That is, not only to diagnose autism, but to identify speech disorders in autism. And then it would be possible to start intervention earlier. All such studies bring something to the clinic and practice. But I will not dissemble, my main interest is exclusively fundamental science.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

Do you teach at HSE in parallel with your work at the Center?

Yes. Our school of linguistics has introduced a two-year experimental track in psycho- and neurolinguistics. I taught an introductory module on neuroanatomy and physiology. Basically, I was teaching what I do in my professional life, but on a more general and structured level. I do neuroscience in practice, and these were classical courses. I talked about the different structures of the brain: what is formed and how, how it develops, how signals are transmitted and how it works.

Do the students show a lot of interest in the subject?

Yes, because the division into tracks takes place in the third year, and the students came already interested. Now two are writing papers with me: one is earning a master’s, the other a bachelor’s. After leaving for the postdoc, I will be in touch with them because they have participated in my projects and will be full-fledged co-authors of the articles. So, the joint work will continue.

How would you characterise the typical HSE graduate?

He or she is a young researcher who does high-quality science at the international level. And I hope HSE will continue what it is already doing, that it won’t lose its standing and will increase international cooperation as much as possible because I am convinced that the only real science is international science. Staff members of our Center for Language and Brain publish constantly in foreign journals. We speak at conferences abroad. Our abstracts are warmly welcomed. We have articles that we co-author with foreign colleagues.

How has your relationship with your colleagues developed?

The people who work at the Center for Language and Brain are wonderful. Many of my colleagues have become close friends over the years. The personal relationships are amazing. Professionally speaking, the people at the Center have a wide variety of knowledge and skills. For example, one person is a great specialist in the statistical analysis of big data. Another is an excellent clinician who works with patients. These are all different fields of knowledge that you can integrate in your work. Because the Center deals with a very diverse range of topics, accordingly, people’s competencies are also very diverse. Everyone is open and friendly, so of course, they teach you and show you everything.

What could be done to improve working conditions even more for HSE researchers?

It seems to me that if we are talking about postgraduate students, it makes sense to financially support not only those who study in academic programs, but also everyone else. If you work in a lab on your PhD project, you get paid. But this is not the case for all graduate students, and not even the majority, since there are humanitarian disciplines that do not involve lab work. Postgraduate students can’t get by on their basic stipend, so they have to find additional work elsewhere. As a result, they might not have enough time for their PhD project.