Research & Scholarly Achievement
at Gallaudet University

Brain and Language Laboratory (BL2)

The state-of-the-art Brain and Language Laboratory for Neuroimaging (BL2), led by Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto (Scientific Director, and Founder), functions much more as a Gallaudet University Center, and a national resource, on early brain development underlying language, reading, bilingualism and sign language processing. BL2 is a member of the NSF Science of Learning Center at Gallaudet University, Visual Language and Visual Learning, VL2. The team studies language and bilingualism, reading and literacy, including the important role of Visual Sign Phonology in successful reading in young deaf children. They are further committed to powerful innovative translation and to providing meaningful knowledge to society, spanning parents, teachers, and educational policymakers. The team seeks to uncover the biological foundations and environmental influences underlying linguistic, reading and cognitive processing in monolingual and bilingual infants, children, and adults. A wide range of methods (behavioural, neuroimaging, genetic), languages (signed, spoken) and populations (infants, children, and adults, both monolingual and bilingual, deaf and hearing, and cochlear implant users) are used to understand the fascinating processes by which infants discover the basic building blocks of their language as well as the most optimal conditions of learning language, reading, and literacy. Another important goal of BL2 is to provide state-of- the-art training to Gallaudet students in the world’s most advanced neuroimaging. We are especially proud to be the neuroimaging training home for Gallaudet’s pioneering PhD in Educational Neuroscience (PEN) program - the site where all PEN students receive their foundational neuroimaging and Cognitive Neuroscience training in methods and theory. BL2 also features one of the world’s most advanced brain imaging systems, called functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS), which, remarkably, is made available to undergraduate and graduate student training, leading to new career and post-graduate study opportunities. The lab also houses an advanced Thermal IR Imaging system to study higher cognitive functions involving emotional arousal and attention in learning, whereupon its integration with fNIRS and Eye-tracking is further being pioneered (with unique student participation and training). The lab also has as an Infant Habituation Lab, Video-Recording, and Editing studios, Video-Conferencing facilities, Cognitive Neurogenetic analysis studio, Experimental and Observation Chambers, State-of-the-art Tobii Eye-Tracking studio, Library, and Student Research Brain/Behavioral Analysis Work Stations, and more. BL2 provides laboratory tours and presentations of our research to visitors of Gallaudet University and the VL2 center. This year (October 1, 2016 - September 30, 2017) more than 200 people have visited the Laboratory from more than 9 countries. BL2 has undergraduate, graduate students, and doctoral students from multiple programs and departments across the university (e.g. psychology, interpretation, education, linguistics, hearing speech & language sciences), and particularly, has 5 doctoral students from the PhD in Educational Neuroscience program. Further, we enjoy PEN MOU’s with over 22 Universities. Our BL2 students have traveled to some of the universities and representatives from outside universities come here.

Dr. Laura Ann Petitto, Cognitive Neuroscientist and Scientific Director, BL2


Cochlear implants and the brain: The biological basis for language and cognition in infants, children, and adults with cochlear implants

ID: 2061
Status: Ongoing
Start date: September 2012

Description

Controversy abounds regarding the specific impact of differences in language experience on the acquisition of spoken language in deaf individuals with cochlear implants (CI).  Noteworthy are claims that early exposure to a signed language causes deviance to auditory language tissue development. Related claims are that young children with cochlear implants should not receive early exposure to a signed language for fear that the tissue devoted to auditory processes will be “taken over” by signed language processing (invoking principles of neural plasticity as a causal mechanism). We ask whether early exposure to a visual signed language impacts negatively, and/or causes neural deviance or abnormality to, classic left-hemisphere spoken language tissue development in deaf individuals who had early cochlear implantation, including left Inferior Frontal Gyrus (LIFG) and Superior Temporal Gyrus (STG) in deaf individuals with a CI.

For the first time, we used state-of-the-art fNIRS brain imaging technology to address this question in healthy deaf individuals with cochlear implants, crucially, with and without early exposure to a visual signed language. Unlike other neuroimaging technology, fNIRS has revolutionized the study of individuals with Cochlear Implants because it is uniquely capable of imaging inside the human brain without causing damage to these CI individual or to the technology.

We find that early exposed deaf CI individuals showed entirely normal and robust activation in classic left-hemisphere language areas (LIFG).  By contrast, late exposed deaf CI individuals showed greater activation in the right-hemisphere (RIFG), which are not classic left hemisphere language areas.  This supports the hypothesis that early signed language exposure facilitates normal language processing and does not cause neural deviance or abnormality to classic left-hemisphere language tissue. Strong evidence of neural plasticity was not at work—specifically, auditory processes were not “taken over” by signed language processing in early-sign exposed individuals with cochlear implants. Instead, their language tissue activity was entirely normal. Rather than neural plasticity, the findings suggest instead that aspects of left hemisphere language tissue thought to be “auditory” is not, and instead is doggedly dedicated to processing highly specific patterns in natural language, be they patterns on the hands or the tongue. We therefore conclude that early, but not later, exposure to a signed language supports typical, healthy and normal language development.

BL2 has undergraduate, graduate students, and doctoral students from multiple programs and departments across the university (e.g. psychology, interpretation, education, linguistics, hearing speech & language sciences), and particularly, has 5 doctoral students from the PhD in Educational Neuroscience program. Further, we enjoy PEN MOU’s with over 22 Universities. Our BL2 students have traveled to some of the universities and representatives outside universities come here.

 

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Jasińska, K., Langdon, C., & Petitto, L. A. (2013, June). Early life exposure to visual signed language in Deaf individuals with cochlear implants facilitates the development of auditory language tissue: Evidence from fNIRS neuroimaging. Poster presented at National Science Foundation Site Visit: Visual Language, Visual Learning, Washington, DC.

Petitto, L.A., Langdon, C., Cochran, C., Andriola, D. Stone, A., Kartheiser, G. (2016). Visual Sign Phonology: Insights into Human Reading from a Natural Soundless Phonology. WIREs Cognitive Science. WIREs Cogn Sci 2016. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1404

Stone, A., Kartheiser, G., Hauser, P.C., Petitto, L.A., & Allen, T.E., (2015). Fingerspelling as a Gateway into Reading Fluency in Deaf Bilinguals. PLoS ONE. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0139610


The effects of early visual language exposure on deaf children's linguistic and non-linguistic visual processing: An Eye-Tracking and fNIRS brain imaging investigation of emergent readers

ID: 2750
Status: Ongoing
Start date: January 2013

Description

How do young children learn to read when using contemporary learning tools such as reading apps? Virtually nothing is known about this even though such learning tools are ubiquitous. How do young deaf children use, visually examine, and process complex visual information on a moving screen—especially involving, for example, early reading apps for the young deaf reader? For these questions, no studies exist, and our present studies are the first of their kind. We examine whether differences in early life visual language experience (AoE) impact visual attention and allocation in young deaf and hearing emergent readers. Early visual language experience affords enhanced visual gaze-shifting and visual attention in the young deaf visual learner which subsequently impacts book-sharing and literacy behaviors in toddlers and yields linguistic, reading and cognitive benefits. Little is known about how early visual language experience impacts the way young deaf children learn to read in a bilingual learning context, where both languages are presented visually, but one is signed (ASL) and the other written (English.) We examine whether differences in early life visual language experience (AoE) impact visual attention and allocation in the young emergent reader.

If early visual language is a significant factor in task performance in early sign-exposed children, it may suggest that select visual properties at the heart of visual sign phonology selectively enhances visual sight word recognition in ways that positively impacts those children’s acquisition of English reading. Also, it will provide insights into when (at what age) young deaf children are best exposed to sign languages as to promote bilingual mastery and enhancements to English reading acquisition. Results from the present study have begun to provide first-time research-based insights into all young children’s visual attention to linguistic and non- linguistic visual information in dynamic moving scenes, as are commonly used in today’s e-literacy technology.  

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Petitto, L. A. (2014). How do emerging findings in neuroscience apply to the classroom and education practices? In AAAS & The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (Chairs), Neuroscience and education: From the lab to the classroom. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC.

Petitto, L. A. (2015, January). Foundation principles of fNIRS imaging. Workshop conducted at the University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, Hong Kong.

Petitto, L. A. (2015, January). Sciences of learning: Why it matters to schools and families. Presented at the University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, Hong Kong.

Petitto, L. A. (2015, January). The potential contributions of a science of learning center to the University of Hong Kong's advancement of science. Presented at the University of Hong Kong, Pukfulam, Hong Kong.

Petitto, L. A. (2015, July). Bilingualism in the early years: How to expand your child's language ability. Presented at Victoria Educational Organization, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.

Petitto, L. A. (2015, July). The grand challenge University of Hong Kong. Presented at the University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, Hong Kong.

Petitto, L. A. (2015, July). What makes human language human? Presented at the University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, Hong Kong.

Petitto, L. A. (2015, June). fNIRS Workshop. Workshop conducted at the University of Hong Kong Summerfest, Pokfulam, Hong Kong.

Petitto, L. A., (2014, November). How the brain of the baby discovers language. Presented at the Institute for Research in Social Science, University of Ulster, Belfast, Ireland.

Petitto, L.A. (2015, May). Keck in-person meeting. Seeing the Temporal Beats of Human Language, Gallaudet University, Washington, DC.

Petitto, L.A. (2016, February 9). VL2, The Science of Learning and 21st Century Directions: Can We Get There?. NSF Evaluation iSLC. National Science Foundation, Arlington, VA. 


Neuroplasticity of Spatial Working Memory in Signed Language Processing

ID: 3331
Status: Completed
Start date: January 2017
End Date: August 2017

Description

In today’s world, there is a viable, growing interest in bilingualism and sign language. This calls for a better understanding of what type of behavioral and brain-differences arise as a result of (1) the modality of second language learning (i.e. signed or spoken language); and (2) the timing of second language learning (i.e. during or beyond the critical period). Here, we specifically ask whether the (1) modality of language and (2) age of exposure impacts spatial working memory. Spatial working memory is a higher-level cognitive function that permits one to encode, store, manipulate, and recall spatial information. 10 Native ASL-English Bilinguals, 10 Native English-Spanish Bilinguals, 10 ASL learners, 10 Spanish learners, and 10 late exposed, highly proficient ASL-English bilinguals will participate. Participants will perform three spatial n-back tasks to measure their spatial working memory. While performing, hemodynamic responses will be recorded using functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy and subsequently analyzed to identify activity in known regions of interests for spatial working memory -- left ventrolateral prefrontal and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortices. It is anticipated that this research will have transformative translational impact, as many individuals, deaf and hearing, learn sign language for the first time at varying ages across the lifespan.

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The RAVE Revolution for Children with Minimal Language Experience During Sensitive Periods of Brain and Language Development

ID: 3170
Status: Ongoing
Start date: October 2015

Description

Background: Insufficient minimal language experience in very young children has been shown to have a devastating impact on children’s capacity to learn language, learn to read and consequently to achieve normal higher cognitive functions—a problem facing many children in the world (for example, late-exposed bilingual children, the vocabulary and language “gaps” observed in Low versus High SES children, children with special learning needs or emotional challenges, and children in various contexts of war and social turmoil). Deaf infants are at particular risk, as beyond minimal language experience, it is possible that they can receive no accessible early life language experience.

Scientific Innovation: To overcome such devastating early language exposure barriers that vast numbers of children face, we will create a revolutionary learning support tool, a Robot+Avatar named “RAVE,” intended to be augmentative for young deaf visual learners during vital early-life critical/sensitive periods of development, and inclusive of many other children. The new Robot AVatar thermal-Enhanced learning tool (“RAVE”) is to be placed near a baby’s high-chair, so as to augment and lift young infants who would otherwise have only minimal language input into a honed sensitivity to, and integrated use of, multiple linguistic cues at the core of human language structure.

Broader Impacts: RAVE has the potential to provide a new aid to children with minimal or no early language input; provide the nation with a competitive science and technological edge; train students from multiple disciplines in interdisciplinary science; advance involvement of under-represented groups in STEM, and train young deaf scientists in the advancement of scientific knowledge with transformative translational significance for all of society.

Year 2 of this 3-Year grant (October 1, 2016 to Sept 30, 2017). This NSF INSPIRE research project provided many Gallaudet undergraduate and graduate student training opportunities that will significantly impact their future career opportunities, catapult their ability to enter STEM disciplines, and to become leaders in them. Gallaudet IRB applications were submitted. Design and planning for Experiments 1-4 were completed. Based on Petitto’s analyses of sign-phonetic and sign-syllabic structure (especially as salient in infant-directed sign and nursery rhymes), design of the Motion Capture stimuli for all Experiments were completed (Malzkuhn, Lamberton). Intensive technology integration efforts were begun: thermal IR imaging team (Merla, Italy) and the Petitto Gallaudet team (fNIRS brain imaging and eye-tracking; Gallaudet team: PEN Assistant Prof Dr. Clifton Langdon; Post-Doc/thermal IR imaging expert Dr. Barbara Manini; PEN grad students Adam Stone and Geo Kartheiser/Petitto Advisor; undergraduates, graduate students; RAs). The team completed the first-time integration of BL2’s 3 technologies: Thermal IR Imaging, fNIRS brain imaging, and Tobii Eyetracking systems. Experiment 4 (infant gaze following) was fully completed; data analyses are underway and manuscript preparation has begun. Together, the integrated system will render the first artificial-human infant learning tool that can engage in contingent, socially interactive conversations.

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Seeing the Temporal Beats of Human Language

ID: 2922
Status: Ongoing
Start date: January 2015
End Date: September 2018

Description

Year 3 of this 3-Year grant (January 15, 2017-January 14, 2018): Monthly meetings (combined Keck and NSF-INSPIRE) as well as SLACK web based team daily communications were maintained throughout the year, and included in-person, on site at Gallaudet, all-hands-on-deck team meetings. This Keck research project provided many Gallaudet undergraduate and graduate student training opportunities that will significantly impact their future career opportunities, catapult their ability to enter STEM disciplines, and to become leaders in them. Infant recruitment was conducted.  The complex neuroscience design of the fNIRS brain imaging experiment was completed, pilot data collected, experimental modifications implemented, and experimentation begun. Petitto’s linguistic-structural analyses guided the team’s Keck-purchased Motion Capture. Experimental analyses (deaf, hearing) have already begun. Our discoveries about babies’ preferences for specific rhythmic temporal frequencies in language (over others) have, in turn, guided the design and creation of our learning tool (e.g., with more fluid movements in avatar sign productions). We have identified indices of when infants are in a peaked emotional and higher cognitive attentive state, i.e., “ready to learn” before they are able to produce language and tell us so (ages 6–12 months). This revolutionizes our capacity to provide targeted early intervention.

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Scholarship and creative activity

2017

Jasinska, K.K., Berens, M., Kovelman, I., & Petitto, L.A., (2016) Bilingualism yields language-specific plasticity in left hemisphere’s circuitry for learning to read in young children. Neuropsychologia. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2016.11.018

Jasinska, K.K., Petitto, L.A. (2017). Age of Bilingual Exposure Changes the Contribution of Phonological and Semantic Knowledge to Successful Reading Development.  Child Development. DOI:10.1111/cdev.12745

Jasinska, K.K., Petitto, L.A. (2017). Age of Bilingual Exposure Changes the Contribution of Phonological and Semantic Knowledge to Successful Reading Development.  Child Development. DOI:10.1111/cdev.12745

Petitto, L.A. (2016, September 9). “Universals of Literacy & the Brain as Revealed through the Eyes”. Presented at the USAID International Literacy Day Forum,  Washington, DC.

Petitto, L.A. (2017, April). Discoveries about infant language learning and “readiness to learn” from integrated fNIRS, thermal IR, robot, and avatar sciences.Presented at the Society for Research on Child Development, Austin, TX.

Petitto, L.A., Langdon, C., Cochran, C., Andriola, D. Stone, A., Kartheiser, G. (2016). Visual Sign Phonology: Insights into Human Reading from a Natural Soundless Phonology”. WIREs Cognitive Science. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1404

Scassellati, B., Traum, D., Tsui, K., Shapiro, A., Petitto, L.A. (2017, April 5-8). The RAVE: Designing technology-based interactions for deaf infants. Symposium conducted at Society for Research on Child Development, Austin, TX.

Stone, A., Bosworth, R., Petitto, L.A. (January 2017). Sonority in Lexicalized Fingerspelling: Perception Studies With Infants and Adults. Symposium at the Meeting of the Linguistics Society of America. Austin, TX.

Stone, A., Manini, B., Kartheiser, G., Langdon, C., Merla, A., & Petitto, L.A. (2016, November). Infants’ sensitivity to visual rhythmic-temporal patterning of language: An integrated fNIRS neuroimaging, thermal infrared imaging, and eye tracking investigation. Poster presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience Conference, San Diego, CA.

Stone, A., Manini, B., Kartheiser, G., Malzkuhn, M., Langdon, C., Merla, A., & Petitto, L.A. (April 2017). Detecting the rhythmic temporal patterning of language: Infants’ neural, physiological, and behavioral sensitivity. Symposium conducted at Society for Research on Child Development, Austin, TX

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