Correcting Language Problems Through Neuroplasticity
Similar to a traveler who unknowingly sets out on the wrong route and needs to be redirected, the brain's plasticity can be utilized to guide the development of neural networks to correct language learning problems.
That key finding and insights into the brain's auditory processing system by Paula Tallal, Rutgers Board of Governors Professor of Neuroscience, has helped to bring positive change to hundreds of thousands of children worldwide who struggle with language.
With her co-researchers, Tallal helped to devise a revolutionary technique and software program - Fast ForWord - to assist children with establishing and strengthening the neural networks for language development.
For more than 30 years, Tallal, co-director of the Rutgers Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, has been studying the connections between auditory processing, attention, memory and language learning.
What her research has shown is that timing is critically important for learning language and speech. The central problem for many children who struggle with language, including those with dyslexia, is that their brains have difficulty perceiving rapidly successive acoustic changes, such as the difference between "da" and "ba."
Tallal and her co-researchers hypothesized that the brain's neuroplasticity could be used to rewire neural networks to increase that processing speed or to "fire and wire" as she describes it.
Neuroplasticity refers to the fact that the brain, rather than being molded and set, is able to reorganize itself in response to new situations or changes in the environment.
In 1996, she and co-researcher Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus, University of California, San Francisco, founded Scientific Leaning Corporation to bring their research out of the lab to help children who struggle with language.
The result was Fast ForWord, a computer-based program that corrects auditory processing problems by pushing the brain to handle auditory information at faster and faster speeds. The software, with an 80 percent success rate, has been used by children in more than 40 countries.
In her research, Tallal found that many children who struggle with language have a listening "window" that is slower than 1/4 second long.
Yet to differentiate fast-changing sounds, the brain needs to be able to perceive differences at the millisecond range to learn the smaller sounds inside of words, the phonemes.
If auditory information could be slowed down, Tallal theorized, it should become easier for children with processing delays to learn those differences.
That instead of mistaking "cat" for "tat," for example, they could learn to hear the discrete changes and if that information then could be presented at increasingly faster rates, their brains could be remodeled to make learning language easier and permanent.
That is just what Fast ForWord and the team's related learning tools accomplish. As shown by fMRI studies, the brains of children who have used the program develop the same firing patterns as children who do not struggle with language.
Her current research is focused on the neural and genetic bases of language development, and early detection methods for language learning difficulties.
In research that followed a set of babies across several years, she and her team found that identifying how fast the brain can organize simple incoming auditory information at very young ages is the best predictor of successful language development.
Such findings could open the way for earlier correction methods to spare children the struggles so many experience because of processing delays.