New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) recently opened a Neuroscience of Language Laboratory, featuring a Magneto–encephalography (MEG) machine that will enable researchers to better understand the type of brain activity associated with various cognitive processes.
The laboratory aims to advance scientific knowledge on how humans neurologically process language—from the basic level of constructing words from their root forms, to the more complex task of composing sentences.
NYUAD’s MEG system is the first of its kind in the Gulf region, and is one of the few that has been produced in the world. The MEG machine is a non-invasive brain scanner that is able to detect minute magnetic fluctuations from neural reactions in the brain, with extreme sensitivity, at millisecond resolution. Sensors positioned at more than 200 points are housed in a thermally-insulated casing that covers the whole head, allowing the scanner not only to detect the level of activity, but the region of the brain active during different cognitive processes. The whole-head MEG system was custom built for NYUAD by the Kanazawa Institute of Technology, allowing the research team to make improvements to the design according to the specifications required for the lab’s projects.
Research in this area can have valuable clinical applications, as it is critically important in supporting more effective and personalized speech and language therapy for those with linguistic challenges. For example, general insights on the way the brains of individuals with autism, or developmental or acquired language impairment, process language could potentially support more effective diagnosis and treatment of such cases.
The lab has signed a partnership agreement with UAE University Linguistics’ Neuroscience of Language Laboratory, committing to share resources and technical expertise, and to collaborate on research projects. The Department of Linguistics at UAE University has an established team of researchers working on Arabic and other languages from formal, neuropsychological and developmental perspectives; the collaboration between the two labs aims to position the UAE as a leader in neurolinguistic research.
The lab will be directed by Alec Marantz, professor of linguistics and psychology at NYU, alongside a team of researchers from NYU, including David Poeppel, professor
of psychology and neural science at NYU, and Liina Pylkkänen, associate professor
of linguistics at NYU.
“There was a strong motivation for us to house this project in Abu Dhabi, where there is a vast range of languages spoken, giving us a unique participant population to work with,” says Marantz. “This will give us the opportunity to study Arabic in particular, which has unique properties in its structure, and in its variations of written and spoken language. Previous neurolinguistic research has not significantly focused on this kind of linguistic structure, so we believe that our research here will provide some truly insightful results that will be valuable in furthering our scientific knowledge of languages in the region.”