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Communication engages complex brain circuitry and processes

SAN DIEGO New human and animal studies released today uncover the extensive brain wiring used in communication and provide new insights into how the brain processes and produces language, accents, and sounds. The research also explores the brain abnormalities in people with speech and language problems, such as stuttering, suggesting future treatment avenues. The new findings were presented at Neuroscience 2010, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world's largest source of emerging news on brain science and health.

Communication involves a complex series of tasks, from processing and comprehending sounds to producing jaw movements. Better understanding of the brain circuitry involved may benefit the more than 46 million Americans who suffer some form of communication impairment.

Research released today shows that:

  • The network of brain connections vital to understanding language is more extensive than previously thought. Researchers identified new speech-related pathways by mapping language areas in the brains of people with and without language difficulties (Nina Dronkers, PhD, abstract 837.13, see attached summary).

  • People who stutter show abnormal brain activity even when reading or listening, which suggests stuttering is due to problems in speech processing, not just production (Kate Watkins, PhD, abstract 563.19, see attached summary).

  • People process words spoken in their native accent differently compared with other accents, which may explain perceived communication difficulties and social inferences attributed to foreign accents (Patricia Bestelmeyer, PhD, abstract 169.13, see attached summary).

  • Men who stutter show different brain connections than women who stutter. These findings may help explain why five times more adult men stutter than women (Soo-Eun Chang, PhD, abstract 790.9, see attached summary).

  • Brain cells in songbirds are tuned to communicative sounds and respond even when those sounds are mixed with background noise. These findings provide insight into how people can focus on a conversation in a loud room, also known as the "cocktail party effect" (Frederic Theunissen, PhD, abstract 275.17, see attached summary).

"Communication is our means of expressing thoughts, feelings, and emotions and today's research not only provides valuable clues to how the brain tackles this vital task, but also gives insight into how we might address and treat communication problems," said press conference moderator Steven L. Small, MD, PhD, of the University of Chicago, an expert on language and the brain.


Contact: Kat Snodgrass
Society for Neuroscience

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