SPL5: Early automaticity of neural language processing: lexical, morpho-syntactic and methodological perspectives

Lead Research Organisation: MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit

Abstract

As we speak and listen, our brain is constantly busy decoding the many layers of information that arrives to our ears: seemingly effortlessly, it can make sense of the sounds of speech, words, their combinations and entire sentences. Indeed, as our neuroscientific results show, spoken language comprehension is an instantaneous process which is reflected in the brains activity within < second. Further still, they suggest an early near-parallel and automatic access to a variety of linguistic information types in the brain that does not even require our attention to the spoken input. Scrutinising different facets of the comprehension processes in healthy people and in patient groups is essential for understanding the language function. We use fast neuroimaging tools, magnetoencephalography (MEG) and electroencephalography (EEG), that track neural processes non-invasively with millisecond precision, to look at comprehension, its neural bases as well as its deficits in healthy ageing, schizophrenia or different types of dementia. Since many patient groups suffer from attention deficits or simply cannot understand or perform an active task, attention-demanding tests are difficult to administer and their results are difficult to interpret. For this and for theoretical reasons, we use brain responses that do not explicitly require subjects active attention on linguistic stimuli. In this work, we (1) scrutinise the neural time course of language comprehension processes in passive tasks, (2) optimise and fine-tune experimental methods for language function assessment, (3) investigate how linguistic brain circuits are formed through practice and experience, (4) seek translational applications for our research, which opens a unique opportunity to asses the language function even in subjects or patients who are unable to perform more demanding diagnostic tasks.

Technical Summary

(1) Scrutinising different facets of the comprehension processes in healthy people and in patient groups using fast neurophysiological imaging tools is essential for better understanding of the language function. As we have shown, language comprehension is an instantaneous process reflected in the brains neurophysiological activity within 100-250 ms. In this programme, MEG and EEG are applied in healthy norm and in translational studies, looking at specific comprehension deficits and their physiological basis e.g. in healthy ageing, in schizophrenia, semantic dementia or mild cognitive impairment. In this endeavour, it is advantageous to use brain responses that do not explicitly require that subjects pay active attention to linguistic stimuli; the reason for this is both practical and theoretical. Many patients of interest suffer from attention deficits or simply cannot understand or perform an active task, making attention-demanding paradigms difficult to administer and their results difficult to interpret. At the theory level, attention-demanding tasks often introduce behavioural biases as well as induce secondary, post-comprehension processes, which may overlay and mask neural processes related to immediate comprehension, complicating interpretation of results and biasing them towards a particular stimulus type. Our results suggest an early near-parallel and automatic access to a variety of linguistic information types in the brain that does not require attention to the speech input. These results, obtained in ERP and ERF experiments using different languages, and backed structurally by fMRI, demonstrated that we could record neural activation specific to such language elements as morphemes and words and analyse the specific spatio-temporal configuration of such memory traces. These circuits become activated as early as 100-250 ms after the information is present in the spoken input, and can even interact in syntactic or semantic contexts on a similar timescale. We continue studying these processes of automatic rapid understanding; the main strands of this research are: Time course of language comprehension processes in passive tasks as reflected by MEG and EEG. We investigate how various psycholinguistic processes (e.g. lexico-semantic access, morphosyntax) can be traced in the brain, and how they interact with attention and other cognitive processes. Optimisation of experimental methods. Using non-attend tasks and precisely matched stimulus material in auditory and visual modalities, we are looking for the best passive experimental paradigm to assess automatic rapid linguistic processes in the absence of explicit experimental tasks. Language learning as reflected in the automatic brain responses. We show not only how the pre-existing linguistic circuits behave, but how they can be formed neurophysiologically, through practice or perceptual exposure as it happens in real life. Translational applications. Using passive automatic tasks for tracking language activations in the brain opens a unique opportunity to asses the language function even in subjects or patients who are unable to perform more demanding diagnostic tasks. We are investigating neural basis of language comprehension and its deficits in healthy ageing, schizophrenia, semantic dementia or mild cognitive impairment, and expanding this to include more conditions.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description MEG methodology
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Regular trainings of MEG methodology and best practices in data acquisition and analysis at the Unit and off-site, including internationally
 
Description Capacity building grant
Amount £1,300,000 (GBP)
Organisation Joint Health Systems Research Initiative MRC/ESRC 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2013 
End 12/2017
 
Description EU Tempus IV
Amount £834,000 (GBP)
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 01/2010 
End 12/2012
 
Description Erasmus
Amount £7,000 (GBP)
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 08/2010 
End 02/2011
 
Description Federal Agency for Science and Innovation project ?02.740.11.5148
Amount £45,000 (GBP)
Organisation Government of Russia 
Department Federal Agency for Science and Innovation
Sector Public
Country Russian Federation
Start 01/2010 
End 12/2011
 
Description Neuromag PhD studenships/Elekta Neuromag
Amount £50,000 (GBP)
Organisation Elekta Inc 
Sector Private
Country Sweden
Start 10/2007 
End 09/2010
 
Description University of Amsterdam Overseas Studentships/University of Amsterdam
Amount £7,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Amsterdam 
Sector Academic/University
Country Netherlands
Start 08/2010 
End 02/2011
 
Description BioMag Laboratory 
Organisation Helsinki University Central Hospital
Country Finland 
Sector Hospitals 
PI Contribution A collaboration with the BioMag Laboratory at the Helsinki University Central Hospital (Finland), where a number of experiments are being done on spatio-temporal patterns of linguistic processes in the brain.
Collaborator Contribution Use of facilities, running of experiments by RA/students, use of analysis tools
Impact Tracking speech comprehension in space and time. Pulvermüller F., Shtyrov Y., Ilmoniemi R.J., Marslen-Wilson, W., Neuroimage, 31(3), 1297-1305, 2006. Early MEG activation dynamics in the left temporal and inferior-frontal cortex reflect semantic context integration. Shtyrov, Y. , Pulvermüller, F., Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19(10) 1633-1642, 2007. Spatiotemporal Signatures Of Large-Scale Synfire Chains for Speech Processing as Revealed by MEG. Pulvermüller F. & Shtyrov Y. Cerebral Cortex, 19(1):79-88, 2009.
 
Description CNBH 
Organisation University of Cambridge
Department Centre for the Neural Basis of Hearing
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Planning experiments and analysis done together, lab facilities offered by the MRC, preparation and running of experiments by CNBH
Collaborator Contribution running of experiments, data analysis
Impact Peer-reviewed: Auditory size-deviant detection in adults and newborn infants. Vestergaard MD, Háden GP, Shtyrov Y, Patterson RD, Pulvermüller F, Denham SL, Sziller I, Winkler I. Biological Psychology, 82(2):169-75, 2009
Start Year 2006
 
Description Charite 
Organisation Charité - University of Medicine Berlin
Department Department of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Charite provides methodological expertise in EEG data mining, whereas we provide psycholinguistics and cognitive neuroscience knowledge and EEG/MEG data. Planning of further experiments in collaboration.
Collaborator Contribution data analysis routines and data exploration
Impact Peer-reviewed: Neurophysiological correlates of rapid word learning in the brain. Shtyrov Y, Nikulin V., Pulvermüller F. [in press, Journal of Neuroscience].
Start Year 2009
 
Description GSK 
Organisation Addenbrooke's Hospital
Department Addenbrooke's Centre for Clinical Investigation (ACCI)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Hospitals 
PI Contribution Massive efforts in delineating brain basis of schizophrenia. Experiments planned in collaboration, with MEG facilities provided by the MRC. Subject recruitments and help in the running of the studies by GSK.
Collaborator Contribution Subject recruitments and help in the running of the studies
Impact Differential replicability of the magnetic mismatch negativity to length and frequency deviants over the early and later response phases. M Smith, Y Shtyrov, R Henson, S Christensen, P Nathan, E Bullmore and F Pulvermüller In: Fifth Conference on Mismatch Negativity (MMN) and its Clinical and Scientific Applications, April 2009. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, doi: 10.3389/conf.neuro.09.2009.05.156, 2009. Attention to language: Novel MEG paradigm for registering involuntary language processing in the brain. Shtyrov Y., Smith M., Henson R.,, Bullmore E., Nathan P, Pulvermüller F. In: 17th International Conference on Biomagnetism (Biomag 2010), W-III T10-9, CD-ROM, Dubrovnik, Croatia, 2010
Start Year 2008
 
Description Lund University 
Organisation Lund University
Department Centre for Languages and Literature
Country Sweden 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Advice on experimental planning, co-supervision of students/experimental work, joint grant applications
Collaborator Contribution Running experiments, co-supervision of students/experimental work, joint grant applications
Impact MA thesis, PhD work, joint experiments, grant application, publications
Start Year 2010
 
Description MSUPE 
Organisation The Moscow State University of Psychology and Education
Department Magnetoencephalography (MEG) Centre
Country Russian Federation 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Overseeing MEG projects on the nature of neural langauge processing
Collaborator Contribution Running experiments, covering recording slot and volunteers costs, providing research support
Impact novel data collected, conference presentations delivered, joint grant applications (1 successful to date), papers in preparation
Start Year 2010
 
Description University of St.Petersburg 
Organisation Saint Petersburg State University
Department Higher Nervous Activity & Psychophysiology
Country Russian Federation 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Experiments of neurolinguistic processes done in collaboration with SPU colleagues who provide running of experiments by RA/students, volunteer payments and some data analysis.
Collaborator Contribution running of experiments by RA/student, volunteer payment and data analysis
Impact Strength of word-specific neural memory traces assessed electrophysiologically. Alexandrov A., Boricheva D., Pulvermüller F., Shtyrov Y. [under revision, Neuropsychologia] Shtyrov, Y. & Pulvermüller, F. Automaticity and parallelism of early stages of linguistic information processing: neurophysiological data based on the mismatch negativity [in Russian]. In: Current issues in neuroscience (Ed. Ivan Y. Pavlov). University of St. Petersburg, pp. 169-189, 2010.
Start Year 2009
 
Title Neural Language Assesment 
Description Task free patient-friendly easy to use and apply routine to assess neurocognitive status of language function in the brain, applicable to a wide range of conditions/individuals 
Type Diagnostic Tool - Imaging
Current Stage Of Development Initial development
Year Development Stage Completed 2012
Development Status Actively seeking support
Impact May lead to improved diagnosis, disease and therapy progress monitoring, simplified diagnostic strategies and procedures. 
 
Description BBC 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Appearance in BBC 4 documentary devoted to neuroscience of language and featuring CBU MEG Laboratory

sparkling public interest in neurobiology of language
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009
 
Description MSc 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact An visit for biomedical engineering MSc students

sparked interest in our brain research technology, leading to further visits and possible collaborations
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Panel News 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact An article describing new imaging facility at the MRC - MEG laboratory, the MEG method and its advantages.

substantial interest from the public and research participants
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2007
 
Description Respect Magazine 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact interview to a general readership magazine

raised public profile of MRC research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Science and Life 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact interview to a popular science magazine

raised public profile of our research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Telegraph 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Our research on brain reflections of language learning was highlighted in a Daily Telegraph printed and online publications sparking substantial interest from other media and general public

substantial interest to this new line in my research form the media, public, scientific community and prospective students
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description radio 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Our research on brain reflections of language learning was highlighted in a prime-time live radio show by a Tokyo radiostation

sparking further media and public interest in MRC-led cognitive neuroscience research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description talks 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation Keynote/Invited Speaker
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact over 130 talks delivered in total, including keynote, symposia presentation, invited lectures etc to multiple audiences in various countries

raised public profile of MRC research, attracted collaborators and funders, etc
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity Pre-2006,2006,2007,2008,