Language and social cognition are exceptionally complex behaviors, scaffolded by both sensorimotor and cognitive systems, unfolding across short and long timescales, and varying greatly across individuals and development. Our lab studies the neurocognitive basis of language and social cognition across typical and atypical neurodevelopment, including in autistic individuals. To do this, we combine tools from cognitive neuroscience, psychiatry, and developmental psychology including neuroimaging, neuromodulation, behavioral experimentation, and clinical interventions.
Language and social communication across development and in autism
Language development relies on the integration of auditory, motor, visual, and social cues. What brain networks are responsible for this process, and how does the brain combine relevant social, motor, visual, and auditory information to support language processing? This line of research aims to understand the complex neural processes that give rise to the language, how these change over the course of development, and how children and adults use language to communicate socially. Importantly, early language delays and difficulties with social communication are some of the first signs of autism, and autistic individuals use, process, and represent language differently than neurotypical individuals. Our lab applies our understanding of the neural basis of language and social communication to understand language differences (both strengths and challenges) in children and adults with autism.
Predictive processing and cognitive flexibility for language and cognition
The world around us changes rapidly, and rapidly changing contexts provide a challenge for behavior. Different accents, speakers, and social norms render social interaction and conversation highly challenging. Luckily, the human brain is fundamentally plastic – able to rapidly adapt to changing contexts and learn from repeated exposure. This plasticity allows us to learn from our past experiences, form predictions about the future, and flexibly optimize our behavior in a given context. Impairments in these basic systems can result in sub-optimal social, linguistic, and perceptual behavior with relevance for neurodevelopmental disorders. What are the neural systems and mechanisms that allow us to quickly adapt to changing circumstances in our sociolinguistic environment and optimize our social and linguistic behaviors accordingly? One such mechanism is adaptive prediction – which broadly refers to prior experience and context can change processing systems before input becomes available to create an efficient processing system. Predictive processes have been extensively studied in the sensorimotor realm, but are equally important for optimal social interaction and language, allowing us to anticipate, for instance, how a conversational partner will react. Cognitive flexibility - or the ability to flexibly allocate mental resources to choose actions that align with internal goals across changing contexts - is also important for these higher-order cognitive domains.
This line of research aims to study the neural mechanisms underlying efficient language and social cognition (such as adaptive prediction, and cognitive flexibility) and how alterations in these systems may result in cognitive differences in typical development and in autism).
Strengths-based approaches in autism
All individuals are characterized by unique challenges and strengths. This is also true for neurodevelopmental populations, such as autism. Our work has found that autistic individuals can show equal or even better performance in certain domains and contexts than their neurotypical counterparts. However, research rarely takes a strengths-based approach to examining neurodevelopmental disorders. This line of research seeks to understand the neurocognitive basis of strengths in autistic children and adults.
The cerebellum in language, cognition, and disorders
The cerebellum contains over 80% of the neurons in the whole brain, and over 50% of the neurons in the central nervous system. In the sensorimotor domain, the cerebellum is a core structure for skill acquisition and motor learning. However, the vast majority of the cerebellum is actually devoted to cognitive processing. Understanding the basic organization and cognitive influences of the cerebellum addresses a major gap in the cognitive neuroscience literature, which has focused on cortical contributions to sociolinguistic behaviors and development. How does cerebellar functional organization support functions such as language and social communication and their development? This line of research seeks to understand cerebellar contributions to complex cognition and development using neuroimaging, neuromodulation, and examining populations with injury to or developmental differences in the cerebellum.
Tools and Approaches
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)