PHILADELPHIA — Maria Neimark Geffen, PhD, assistant professor of Otorhinolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has received a $750,000 grant over a three-year period from the Human Frontier Science Program to fund research into the developmental mechanisms in the human brain that are responsible for speech and communication.  Dr. Geffen will head the cross-disciplinary, cross-continental team of investigators, which also includes Dr. Judit Gervain at the Laboratoire de la Perception, CNRS in Paris.

“Understanding speech is one of the most important functions that our brains perform every day. While we now understand that infants start understanding some features of speech in utero, how the brain develops to understand the full richness of speech remains a mystery,” said Dr. Geffen. “The goal of our project is to combine state-of-the-art computational and brain imaging techniques to trace how the brain develops to be able to process speech.”

Recent results suggest that the category ‘speech’ itself might need to be revised to include other biological communicative sounds, as young infants process primate vocalizations in a similar fashion as speech. Dr. Gervain will use new brain imaging techniques to measure the activity in the infant brain, through different points of development. Contributing her expertise in computational and systems neuroscience, Dr. Geffen will identify what classes of sounds are special for the human auditory system, which brain regions and mechanisms process these sounds in the infant brain, and how this processing changes with development.

 “Our project seeks to explore the developmental mechanisms of specialization of the human brain for speech and communication,” she says.

The research proposal “Development of brain mechanisms underlying speech preference in infants: Is speech special?” was one of only 10 of young investigator projects selected worldwide for funding by the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO). HFSPO works  to promote intercontinental collaboration and training in cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research focused on the life sciences.

For more information, please see the HFSPO award announcement.

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