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The Science of Speech

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Soundproof_Lab_copyA little-known non-profit is studying how humans process language

Haskins Laboratories has been studying the biology of speech and communication for 77 years.

The research institution has maintained affiliations with Yale University and the University of Connecticut as well as other schools and labs there the world, bringing in roughly 100 scientists yearly to conduct basic research on spoken and written language.

Based in New Haven for 42 years, Haskins in 2005 moved from its longtime location on Crown Street to an expansive space at 300 George order ambien.

Photo: The anechoic chamber at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven is used to cancel extraneous reflections so scientists can study pure sound waves.


Haskins President and Director of Research Kenneth Pugh says researchers there have done extensive work on reading and writing development with a significant focus on dyslexia. He is often cited as an early user of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which can visually represent the brain activity that takes place during different cognitive tasks.

“But we’re only in kindergarten when it comes to what we know about the brain,” Pugh acknowledges, applying the study of dyslexia. “We need to look beneath what MRI tells us. It’s not an explanation of dyslexia? Actually it’s not, it’s just a description. We don’t know why the brain did something differently.”

Pugh says Haskins also performs fMRI’s of speech, reading comprehension and even bilingualism.

A significant amount of work there focuses on the physiology and neurobiology involved in the perception of speech, which goes back almost to the beginning of Haskins Laboratories. It was a Haskins researcher who in 1951 developed the Pattern Playback, the first synthesizer that could process images of spectrograms into sounds. The original machine is still on display at Haskins. Pugh says it “should” be at the Smithsonian Institution, but Haskins elected to keep it on-site.

The lab is loaded with various machines and devices to measure brain responses based on various stimuli — even a mock-MRI scanner to train young children to stay still for an eventual MRI. For children up to two years of age, an optical-imaging cap worn on the head shines infrared lights into the brain and react when parts of the brain respond to auditory or visual stimuli. Various other medical devices measure muscle movements of the tongue and throat and even alter the muscles of the face to evaluate changes in speech.

An anechoic chamber — a type of sound-proof room designed to defeat room reflections and ambience — is used to record and measure sounds to more accurately measure frequencies. The small room feels like a spacecraft with its metallic sound-deadening fixtures. Speaking inside it, one can feel a palpable change in pressure on the eardrum.

Haskins Laboratories is a non-profit organization, and as such does not patent inventions for profit. Funding predominantly comes from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and it typically is less than $10 million annually, according to Vice President of Finance & Administration Joseph Cardone.

Pugh says the lab’s goal from the beginning was to function as a non-profit entity.

Haskins1“Because it was and still is basic research, it needs to be pure of any profit motive, and needs to be fundable by the agencies that demand it be pure,” he says. “Scientists can’t be seen as compromised by profit motive or their studies won’t get published in nature.”

Photo: Dr. Ken Pugh is the President and Director of Research at Haskins Laboratories.

He says the research that comes from Haskins — for example, gene or neurochemical connections to language — is often used by others to develop gene therapy or pharmaceuticals that can aid in learning.

But most of Haskins’ research, Pugh says, has led to developments in how to teach reading, particularly in illustrating the importance of teaching phonological skills.

“It came from the insight that reading is not just a visual thing; we are wired by evolution to speak and listen. Reading has only been around for 5,000 years; it requires giving [brain systems] different jobs,” Pugh says. “And the National Reading Panel was able to say, ‘If you don’t do this, you’re in trouble.’”

Pugh says that for the future, Haskins is focused on understanding how language develops in babies, and how to locate the cause of problems with speech as they arise, further research into bilingualism and the process of learning second languages, and how genetics control language.

 

 

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