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Center for Language and Brain Wins 3-Year Grant to Study Prevention, Diagnostics and Therapy of Language Disorders

The HSE Center for Language and Brain studies a broad range of topics related to the connection between the brain and language. For Svetlana Malyutina, Deputy Head, and Mariya Khudyakova, Junior Research Fellow, particularly interesting areas of focus include the breakdown of language processing after brain damage (e.g., stroke, neurosurgery, epilepsy) and language acquisition in children. 

‘We are not so much concerned with questions regarding language per se, for example, with grammatical norms or historic changes’, Malyutina says, ‘rather, we are interested in how our brain and our cognitive capacities allow us to use it’.

This general mission was given a major boost by the news that the Center for Language and Brain was awarded a three-year ‘mega-grant’ by the Russian government for a project entitled ‘Language and Brain: Prevention, Diagnostics and Therapy of Language Disorders’. The grant will be used to support the Laboratory’s work in the field of clinical linguistics, developing clinical tools and studying the neural correlates of language disorders and their recovery. But the researchers also plan to extend their research in other populations and conduct new studies in bilingual individuals and children.

‘Language acquisition in children is a fascinating area because every age group is different and not so much is known about the neural correlates of language acquisition, or about the quantitative patterns of language acquisition in Russian’, said Khudyakova. ‘So more of our research will be conducted in children in 2018, using both behavioural and neuroscience methods’.

Proud achievements

While keeping an eye toward exciting current and future research endeavours, researchers at the Laboratory take pride in recent accomplishments, which include work in language mapping during awake neurosurgery, an example of which would be a surgeon performing intraoperative function mapping in order to spare functionally crucial areas while removing a brain tumour. The surgical team would wake the patient from anaesthesia and ask them to perform a task while specific cortical areas are directly stimulated with electrical current.

‘Our team, headed by Dr. Olga Dragoy, develops tests for intraoperative language mapping and directly assists with language testing as part of the neurosurgical team’, Malyutina says. ‘We are proud to take linguistics to the operating room in order to help patients spare their language abilities’.

Language disorders

Apart from its work in intraoperative language mapping, the Center for Language and Brain is also developing language assessment tools for aphasia (Russian Aphasia Test), dyslexia, and specific language impairment. Russian is largely lacking standardized clinical assessment tests, and the Laboratory’s researchers aim to fill this gap and develop novel tools that can be used both for research and in routine work of speech-language pathologists in clinical and educational institutions.

‘We are also involved in developing therapy tools’, says Khudyakova. ‘For example, we are investigating whether brain stimulation can enhance the benefits of language therapy in persons with aphasia. In 2018, we are starting a project about creating computer training tools for people with aphasia. These will provide individually-tailored language practice even to those who cannot regular attend language therapy sessions in person’.

The Laboratory is also working to raise awareness of language disorders in the wider community. For example, its researchers have published aphasia awareness leaflets for caregivers of persons with aphasia. Recently, Svetlana Dorofeeva has lectured on the neurolinguistic view of dyslexia for the Association of Parents and Children with Dyslexia.

Foreign language research

The majority of the Laboratory’s experiments are in Russian, but its researchers also conduct studies in foreign languages, including English, German, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Greek, Georgian, and Bulgarian, as well as local languages spoken in the Russian Federation, such as Bashkir or Nenets. Most often, the objective is to compare how the mechanisms of language processing vary, or remain the same, depending on the characteristics of a particular language.

One example of the Laboratory’s work is an investigation into how time processing depends on the writing direction in the language, comparing Russian (left-to-right writing), Hebrew (right-to-left writing) and Japanese (in columns, right-to-left writing). In some cases, researchers aim to test a certain theory and thus need a language with certain characteristics. For example, they are conducting several experiments in Georgian because it is a language with ergative case marking, and this system is hypothesized to be more difficult for children to acquire than the system of Russian or English.

‘Sometimes the goal is to investigate language processing in those who learn a new language or are “losing” their first language after moving to a new environment, so-called language attrition’, said Khudyakova. ‘For example, in 2018 we will start research with Nenets children who initially acquire only Nenets but then are immersed into a Russian-speaking environment when they are admitted to a boarding school’.

Far-reaching collaboration

Center for Language and Brain works closely with the Linguistics Department of the HSE campus in Nizhny Novgorod, collaborating primarily on the neurosurgical project. It also conducts annual Summer Schools that draw attendees from all HSE campuses and from other universities.

The Laboratory collaborates with a number of international universities and research institutes, including the University of Potsdam, the Institute for Advanced Study of Pavia, Radboud University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Thessaloniki, the University of Maryland, and the University of South Carolina.

‘We are also fortunate to have wide international collaborations’, says Malyutina ‘We greatly appreciate the guidance from our scientific advisors, Dr. Nina Dronkers from the University of California at Davis in the United States and Dr. Roelien Bastiaanse from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands’.

Prepared by Anna Chernyakhovskaya

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