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Developmental Disorders and Language

Presenter: Ursula Bellugi, Ph.D.

Language Development, Spatial Cognition, and Underlying Neural Systems

Our progress in understanding the biological foundations of language has made great strides in part because of new and powerful methods of brain imaging, startling advances in molecular genetics, and a host of new tools in cognitive neuroscience. This symposium is dedicated to providing a focus on what we can learn, now and in the future, about language from different developmental disorders.

Deaf children who are learning a rich visuospatial language but have been deprived of auditory experience provide the first sets of clues we examine. Deaf children who learn sign language as a native language provide a privileged testing ground for investigating the interplay between the development of a spatial language and its spatial cognitive underpinnings. What are the effects of different early experiences with language? What does this tell us about the human capacity for language and for creating linguistic systems? We find that despite the radical differences in modality of language acquisition, deaf children learning sign language show a strikingly similar pattern of language development and brain organization as do hearing children learning spoken language. We will examine the neural systems underlying language and spatial cognition, providing clues to the organization of these processes in the human brain.

Children with different genetically based disorders reveal other clues to the biological foundations of language. Children with Williams syndrome are particularly interesting because language is their great strength, despite their impairment in general cognitive functioning, and their severe spatial deficits. Children with Down syndrome typically show the opposite pattern of abilities for language and space. Under the influence of different genetic bases, we will show that both groups exhibit unusual brain organization. These studies permit the exploration of some of the central issues of cognitive neuroscience linking cognitive functions with their bases in neurobiology and gene expression.


Dr. Ursula Bellugi is Professor at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, as well as Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience. Dr. Bellugi is also Adjunct Professor at UCSD and SDSU, and an Associate with the Sloan Center for Theoretical Neurobiology, the Neurosciences Group, the Cognitive Sciences Program, the Institute for Neural Computation, and the Institute for Molecular Medicine. Much of her research is in collaboration with her husband, Edward S. Klima. Both have doctorates from Harvard University and they have received many awards for their research, including two MERIT awards from the National Institute of Child Health and Development, a Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute on Deafness, and the Foundation IPSEN Prize in Neuronal Plasticity, together with Torsten Wiesel and Wolfgang Singer. Dr. Bellugi has served on an Advisory Council to NIH, and is an Associate of the Neurosciences Research Program as well as the Dana Brain Alliance. She gave a Special Presidential Lecture at the Society for Neurosciences on her research, and has presented keynote lectures in many different countries. The research has been presented to Congress as part of the Decade of the Brain and at a recent symposium on Genes, Brain, and Cognition. Drs. Bellugi and Klima have been awarded the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association.

Bellugi and Klima's research is focused on the biological foundations of language and other cognitive functions and their genetic basis. Research projects include studies of "Language, Modality, and the Brain"; "Brain Organization: Clues from Sign Aphasia"; "The Cognitive, Neural, and Genetic Bases of Social Behavior"; "Fractionations Between Language and Cognition"; and "Williams Syndrome: Bridging Cognition, Brain, and Gene". Bellugi has co-authored several hundred papers and books including The Signs of Language (which won an award from the Association of American Publishers) and What the Hands Reveal About the Brain as well as the forthcoming book Journey from Cognition to Brain to Gene: Perspectives from Williams Syndrome (which has been nominated for an award). Bellugi has organized symposia on Neurobiology: Brain and Cognitive Development; Cognition, Brain, and Gene; and Genetic Syndromes of Contrasting Cognitive Profiles. These studies permit the exploration of some of the central issues of cognitive neuroscience linking cognitive functions with their bases in neurobiology and gene expression.