Research in the N.E.R.D. lab focuses on the relationship between gesture and speech and its contribution to language processing and learning in both typical and atypical development. Our research is highly interdisciplinary, spanning the boundaries of cognitive neuroscience, educational psychology, and developmental science. We use a variety of cutting-edge behavioral and neuroimaging techniques, including eyetracking, EEG, and fNIRS, to investigate how the brain integrates gesture and speech in real time. We are the first fNIRS lab in the state of Alabama, as well as the first multimodal neuroimaging and the first developmental cognitive neuroscience lab at UA. Come work with us as we conduct exciting and innovative research on the neurobiology of gesture and its impact on language processing and learning across development!
Cognitive Mechanisms of Multimodal Prosody
Collaborators: Scott Fraundorf (Pitt), Jason Scofield (UA HDFS)
Funding: Hilibrand Fellowship
Prosody is the music of human language, conveying meaning beyond the content of speech alone. In speech, prosodic prominence is conveyed via pitch accenting (the GREEN bowl, not the red one); in gesture, it is conveyed via beats (simple rhythmic gestures). Although pitch accenting and beat gesture typically occur simultaneously, little is known about how they are integrated and how they affect comprehension and memory of discourse and language acquisition. To shed light on these questions, we are using behavioral methods, event-related potentials (ERPs), and eyetracking to investigate real-time integration of beat gesture and pitch accenting in typical adults and children, non-native English speakers, and autism spectrum disorder. In particular, this work examines the following issues:
- Are young children sensitive to the relationship between beat gesture and pitch accenting, and can it help them learn pairs of contrasting words?
- How are beat gesture and pitch accenting integrated in ASD and how does it affect memory and comprehension of discourse?
- What impact do beat gesture and pitch accenting have on memory and comprehension of discourse by English-as-a-second language speakers?
Functional Laterality and L2 Lexical Tone Acquisition
Collaborator: Jake Feiler (Ph.D. student)
Funding: Language Learning Early Career Award, UA Research Grants Council
During acquisition of tonal second languages (L2s), the locus of lexical tone processing in the brain shifts leftward. Gesture conveying lexical tone contours that is based on the conceptual metaphor underlying pitch (up = high, down = low) facilitates L2 acquisition of lexical tone. At present, however, it is unclear whether these gestures expedite the leftward shift in functional laterality, and it is also unclear whether it is the gesture itself or its motion that expedites acquisition of L2 lexical tone. To address these questions, we are using fNIRS and ERPs to examine the impact of gestures conveying lexical tone contours and equivalent dot motion on the neural substrates of L2 lexical tone processing. In particular, this project addresses the following questions:
- Do gestures conveying lexical tone contours enhance L2 lexical tone acquisition more effectively than equivalent dot motion?
- How do gestures conveying lexical tone contours and equivalent dot motion affect the leftward shift in functional laterality accompanying successful L2 lexical tone acquisition?
- How are the neural substrates of multimodal integration of lexical tones and static visual representations of their contours affected by gestures conveying lexical tone contours and equivalent dot motion, as evidenced by the N400 event-related potential and activity in posterior superior temporal sulcus?
Neural Substrates of Contextual Vocabulary Comprehension
Collaborator: Sarah Hughes-Berheim (Ph.D. student)
Funding: Graduate Council Fellowship
Iconic gesture facilitates word learning and spoken discourse processing in both the native language and L2 in children and adults. Research examining the neural substrates of these processes has shown that iconic gesture and co-occurring speech are integrated rapidly and automatically, suggesting that they arise from the same semantic representation. The extent to which iconic gesture is integrated with--and affected by--contextual discourse is less clear, however, as are any differences between gesture-speech and gesture-text integration. To investigate these issues, we are using ERPs and behavioral methods to examine the impact of iconic gesture on acquisition and integration of novel vocabulary into novel sentential contexts. Specifically, this project investigates the following questions:
- Can differences in learning based on the semantic congruence between novel words and iconic gestures be replicated when words are presented as text (as opposed to speech)?
- Is the N400 ERP affected by the semantic relationships between novel words, iconic gestures, and sentential contexts?
- Do individual differences in print exposure and/or vocabulary affect the magnitude of the N400 ERP in these tasks?
Social Skills Training and the pSTS in Autism Spectrum Disorder
Collaborators: Laci Watkins (UA SPEMA), Cailee Nelson (Ph.D. student)
Funding: UA Research Grants Council, Graduate Council Fellowship
Impaired social functioning is a key diagnostic criterion of autism spectrum disorder (ASD); however, social skills training (e.g., PEERS) has proven successful in treating it. In ASD, the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), which subserves multimodal integration of social stimuli, is functionally abnormal, suggesting that it may play a key role in social functioning impairments in this disorder. Thus, pSTS may be functionally malleable in children with ASD responsive to social skills training, resulting in improved social functioning. To determine whether this is the case, we are using fNIRS to examine changes in pSTS activity in children with ASD receiving social skills training and in typically-developing children. This project addresses the following questions:
- Does social skills training decrease divergence in pSTS activity between children with ASD and typically-developing children?
- Do changes in pSTS activity mediate the impact of social skills training on social functioning in children with ASD?
- Can pre-intervention pSTS activity predict social skills training outcomes in children with ASD?