Neurocognition and Perception Laboratory: Research Highlights

The Neurocognition and Perception (NCaP) Laboratory, directed by Lisa Sanders, aims to 1) understand the neurocognitive mechanisms of basic auditory perception, speech perception, and selective attention across the lifespan, and 2) to determine how attentional control and perceptual learning can lead to better perceptual outcomes, including understanding speech in background noise. To accomplish these goals, the lab uses behavioral, electrophysiological, and neuroimaging measures in listeners ranging from 20 months to 85 years of age.

Cognitive and Neural Measures of Childhood Language Processing and Speech Comprehension in Natural Settings

Maggie Ugolini, graduate student in the Neuroscience and Behavior Program, is conducting a study aiming to better understand real-world language processing (or comprehension) in 5-year-old children. When a child comes to the lab to participate in a study he/she will wear a cap that measures the electrical activity of their brain using electroencephalography (EEG). They will listen to several stories and answer multiple-choice questions about them on an iPad. What is unique about this scenario is that each story includes phonological errors, which will cause a response in the child’s brain.

“You can think of this as an error in pronunciation—the kids expect to hear one letter at the end of a word, and we give them a different one instead. We know that kids' ability to process and think about small language sounds like individual letters is very important for their future success in language and literacy, but we do not have a great neural measure of this type of processing during fluent language listening. I'm hoping to characterize this brain response in children so that we can use it as a tool to identify abnormal language processing and also so we can see how it relates to a child's real-world language comprehension abilities,” says Ugolini.

About a week after the EEG recording portion of the study, the child will return to the lab to complete assessments measuring abilities like memory, IQ, grammar usage, and the ability to hear and repeat language sounds. The researchers will use this information to see which aspects of the brain response to language are most predictive of successful language-processing.

In the real world, language processing is a very automatic process that rarely requires intense conscious thought. Ugolini and her team will take the data from the more realistic story-listening study, and see if it is related to the child’s performance on the more artificial assessments. They are particularly interested in the tasks that ask children to think about and manipulate individual language sounds.

The NCaP lab is currently recruiting children from 5 years 0 months to 5 years 11 months. Interested families can contact NCAP@psych.umass.edu.

Mobile EEG Studies

The NeuroCognition and Perception Lab is very interested in bringing their understanding of selective attention and language processing out of the lab and into the real world. One way they are doing this is with mobile EEG caps. These caps allow researchers to collect brain data on the go and wirelessly stream it to a laptop. The lab members are particularly interested in the cocktail party problem—the idea that in a crowded, noisy environment with multiple conversations, it is possible to selectively attend to one conversation and ignore others. Also, there are certain events (such as hearing your own name) that may force your attention elsewhere.

The researchers want to understand the time course of attentional control during listening and the factors that may make sustained auditory attention more difficult. They are also investigating how this type of attention changes across the lifespan, and how they can use this knowledge to better design environments like classrooms so that they facilitate auditory attention.