Liina Pylkkanen has been awarded a 568K NSF award to study children's language processing with MEG. See below for the project abstract.
How the brains of elementary school children access and combine words: A normative database of basic responses and a public repository of naturalistic narrative data
The proliferation of noninvasive methods to study brain function has revolutionized the neuroscience of language, a uniquely human ability that cannot be studied in animals. So far, most of this research has focused on the adult’s brain, as opposed to the child’s. Given our poor understanding of the neurobiology of language development, we lack an important background for understanding children’s language disorders and for planning surgical treatments for children with neurological disorders such as epilepsy, since such surgeries need to spare language cortex. This project uses magnetoencephalography (MEG) to establish this critical background. The focus will be on two basic processes that form the foundation of human language: word retrieval and the composition of words into larger phrases. Elementary school children from New York City public schools will be invited to participate via science outreach activities in the schools. The data will be entered into a public database that will provide a resource for research and education. The experimental protocol is a combination of a tightly controlled design, built upon prior research on adults, and a naturalistic stimulus, containing fun science-themed narratives. Data from the naturalistic stimulus will offer vast analysis possibilities. To assure that the possibilities are maximally leveraged by researchers, these data will be released to the public on a rapid timescale, at the end each project year. This work will offer research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students. The project is also a significant STEM opportunity for the participating children, as during the lab visit, the experimenter will explain the basics of MEG and how one can capture tiny magnetic fields inside human brains. Overall, the project aims to transform the neuroscience of language in children by providing the basic science that is needed for more detailed understanding to emerge in the future.
The specific scientific objective of this project is to characterize the spatiotemporal profile of lexical retrieval and phrasal composition in 1st, 3rd, and 5th graders, with their parents serving as the adult controls. The experimental protocol, “LexComp,” offers (i) the first systematic spatio-temporal characterization of children’s neural processing of single words and phrases, as compared to the activity profiles of the children’s parents; (ii) a tightly controlled within-subjects and within-items comparison of the neural circuits involved in language comprehension vs. production in children and adults and (iii) a measurement of a simple form of “dialogue,” engaging both the comprehension and production of words and phrases within a 3-4 second trial. An important outcome of the research is the “NYU LexComp Database,” from which users will be able to download activity time-courses for specific brain regions during the three experimental tasks. Study participants will also listen to a naturalistic stimulus, with a fun science themed content designed for children. The naturalistic stimulus will allow assessing whether results from the controlled laboratory tasks scale up to a more ecologically valid setting. All MEG recordings from the project will be made publicly available. The project is a large-scale endeavor to engage a diverse sample of New York City children in a neuroscience activity that will significantly advance our understanding of how language is processed in the brains of 5 - 10 years olds.