My Brain and Your Brain Speak Different Languages

By Clara Colombatto

The fact that “different people speak language differently” is one of the major challenges in uncovering the neural basis of language. Brain structure and function differ highly among individuals, and this is the core of the new discipline of cognitive neurolinguistics. Duke professor Edna Andrews explained the fascinating complexity of language research at the Regulator Bookshop on Tuesday, March 4.

Edna Andrews gives an overview of the new field of cognitive neurolinguistics at the Regulator Bookshop for Brain Awareness Week Credit: Clara Colombatto

Edna Andrews gives an overview of the new field of cognitive neurolinguistics at the Regulator Bookshop for Brain Awareness Week (Photo: Clara Colombatto)

A linguist by training, Edna Andrews is the Nancy & Jeffrey Marcus Distinguished Professor of Slavic & Eurasian Studies, Chair of the Linguistics Program and holds appointments in Cultural Anthropology and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. Over time, Andrews’s research interests led her to neuroscience — so she went back to the classroom, studied as a beginning student with neurobiologist Gillian Einstein and shadowed a team of neurosurgeons at Duke Hospital.

This range of disciplines is fundamental for Andrews’ pioneering work in the field of cognitive neurolinguistics. Observations of brain-damaged patients led to a 19th century model that held that language centers are mainly in the left hemisphere of the brain. In particular, language was thought to be dependent on grey matter, the part of the brain that contains mostly cell bodies and is responsible for information processing, as opposed to white matter, which contains mainly long-range connection tracts (axons) and is responsible for information communication. Researchers realized this understanding was an oversimplification when surgeons started to notice that cutting white matter tracts alone significantly impaired linguistic abilities. New methods, such as electrical stimulation of the brain during surgeries in awake patients, led to the realization that the whole brain is involved in language.

White matter fiber tracts of a human brain visualized with a Tensor Imaging technique. The U-shaped fibers connect the two hemispheres. The finding that these tracts are essential for language revolutionized the field of neurolinguistics because language was previously thought to be localized to gray matter in the left hemisphere. Credit: Thomas Schultz via Wikimedia Commons

White matter fiber tracts visualized with a tensor imaging technique. Findings that the fibers  connecting the two hemispheres are essential for language revolutionized the field of neurolinguistics.
(Photo: Thomas Schultz via Wikimedia Commons)

When theoretical linguists such as Andrews joined the conversation, they merged empirical data with theory to answer questions such as, is language learned or innate? Are there specific structures and localized circuits in the brain responsible for language? And are there critical periods where our brain is particularly sensitive to changes?

The picture is complicated by the fact that “most of the world population is bi or multilingual,” and “one could argue that in fact there are no monolinguals.” In our daily lives, we use different languages at school, at work and at home (Learn more about this hypothesis here). Andrews’ current work addresses these complexities by looking at changes in neural activity as individual speakers acquire Russian as a second or third language. Her latest book “Neuroscience and Multilingualism,” coming out at the end of the year from Cambridge University Press, is an exploration of the neuroscientific modeling of multilingualism.

The lecture was part of Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to encourage public interest in the progress and benefits of brain research. Not to miss: Michele Diaz on “Language and the Aging Brain” on Thursday, 3/5 at 7:30pm, and Richard Mooney on “Music and the Brain” on Friday, 3/6 at 6 pm at Motorco Music Hall.

Students DiVE into the Body to Learn about Addiction

By: Nonie Arora

Dr. Schwartz-Bloom explains the mechanics of the DiVe. Credit: Nonie Arora

Dr. Schwartz-Bloom explains the mechanics of the DiVE. Credit: Nonie Arora

There are not many six-sided, immersive virtual environments in the world–but one of them is at Duke.

Students had the opportunity to dive into pharmacology visualizations with Dr. Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom last week during a tour of the Duke immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE). She explained that the 3D in the DiVE is different from the 3D of a typical movie theater: the glasses have a refresh rate that’s out of sync between the two eyes.

It’s like being inside of a video game. You use a Nintendo-like wand and press buttons to interact with the environment.

We walked through two simulations modeling different aspects of addiction. In the first, we learned why some people are more likely to become alcoholics than others. In the second, we observed the brain changes that underpin addiction to nicotine.

We dove right into the body of an avatar drinking a beer. Some people metabolize alcohol differently than others, depending on their genetic code, Schwartz-Bloom explained.

The simulation was created by a team of students working with Schwartz-Bloom: she assembled a team of students studying biology, chemistry, computer science, electrical and computer engineering and visual arts. They worked together for a year to build the simulation, which explains how alcohol gets oxidized depending on genetics and whether the changes in metabolism increase or decrease the risk for alcoholism.

Students dragging NAD into the active site of the alcohol metabolizing enzyme in the DiVE. Credit: Nonie Arora

Students dragging NAD into the active site of the alcohol metabolizing enzyme in the DiVE. Credit: Nonie Arora

Dr. Schwartz-Bloom explained the advantages of learning about this reaction with a 3D visualization. “Students made this as a game so that others could go in there to make the changes happen – they’d have to grab and move the atoms. The game gives students a real sense of why you need zinc and NAD for this chemical reaction,” Schwartz-Bloom said.

Through the second visualization, we realized why smokers who are addicted generally increase their consumption of cigarettes over time. We saw how repeated exposure to nicotine changes the brain, causing smokers to need more cigarettes over time to get the same pleasurable feelings. The tool can be used in schools to educate students how smoking actually changes the brain, Schwartz-Bloom said.

In the DiVE, I felt like I was on the Magic School Bus, jumping right into the action to learn about pharmacology principles! Free group tours are available at the DiVE between 4:30 and 5:30 on Thursdays.

Deconstructing the HS Textbook: A perspective from Steve Nowicki

Nowicki's original version of his textbook, published by the family-owned McDougall-Littell. Nowicki railed against the organization of the new corporation, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, owned by people somewhere in the Arab Emirates.

Nowicki’s original version of his textbook, published by the family-owned McDougall-Littell. It’s now published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

By Olivia Zhu

Today I learned that Steve Nowicki wrote my ninth grade biology textbook! Dr. Nowicki, most commonly known for his neurobiology research in birdsong or his role as Dean and Vice Provost for undergraduate education, gave a lecture about his experience writing a high school textbook on Tuesday, February 11, through Bass Connections.

Nowicki shed light into the seven-year process of writing a textbook.  He said the table of contents itself took two years. After drafting an initial table of contents, Nowicki sent it to nationwide teacher focus groups—multiple times—for revisions. He then edited the table of contents to meet each individual state’s standards, a process complicated by No Child Left Behind. As for the actual writing process? “I could send the editors crap,” Nowicki confessed. The editors would then turn crap into “better crap.”

Dean Nowicki's official portrait

Dean Nowicki’s official portrait

Nowicki then faced more challenges. He described the struggle of biology textbook companies against the Texas state government, whose governor and chair of state education simply did not believe in evolution. The legislature ultimately allowed the teaching of evolution, mostly in the interest of attracting businesses, in Nowicki’s opinion. The opposition got personal as well. Nowicki said that in the Los Angeles Unified School District, competing textbook companies spread smear sheets about him questioning his credentials as a scientist and the quality of his book.

Ultimately, Nowicki put forth tremendous effort into writing a textbook that still stands as the biology book for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, but said it did little for his CV and didn’t turn much profit.

Still, he said he feels rewarded because he believes “each average citizen should know something about biology,” if only to be thoroughly informed of current issues.

Beers with Bob — Without Beer

By Nonie Arora

My living group, Round Table, had the opportunity to meet up with Dr. Bob Lefkowitz in his office for “Beers with Bob without Beer.” Arnab Chatterjee, a Pratt sophomore and one of our members, works in his research lab and arranged the meet-up…and later dropped the beer from our plans.

We enjoyed being immersed  in Dr. Lefkowitz’s office. We saw the jersey, hanging from the “rafters”, that Coach K presented to him last year amidst cheers of “He’s so smart” from the Cameron Crazies. 

He showed us a video – three times – of the first pitch he threw out for the Durham Bulls baseball game.

Dr. Lefkowitz’s biggest piece of advice to us all was to eat a square of chocolate every day. He jokingly attributes part of his Nobel prize to the threshold effect of upping his chocolate consumption from two squares a week to one a day just two months before receiving the call from Stockholm. That’s one recipe for success that I can get behind! 

Round Table meets with Dr. Bob Lefkowitz. (Nonie’s just to the left of Bob in red top.)

 

Why Meteorites Are So Hard to Find in North Carolina

by Erin Weeks

Note: This is the first in a multi-part series following Nick Gessler’s course on meteorites and the history of the solar system. Astronomy enthusiasts should check out the North Carolina Museum of History’s Astronomy Days happening this weekend, Saturday, January 25.

Visitors to Nick Gessler's lab can touch the moon -- literally -- and a whole lot of meteorites (Photo: Eric Ferreri)

Visitors to Nick Gessler’s lab can touch the moon — literally — and a whole lot of meteorites (Photo: Eric Ferreri)

A meteorite hasn’t been discovered in North Carolina in over 80 years, but Professor Nick Gessler dreams that his students will be the first to break that streak.

On the first day of his class at Duke, Gessler hauled in three tables worth of meteorites, chunks of rock and metal that hurdled through outer space for millions, even billions of years before surviving the descent into Earth’s atmosphere. Among his collection are pieces broken off from the moon, Mars and the dramatic Chelyabinsk meteorite that lit up Russia and YouTube in February 2013.

“That’s what they look like,” Gessler said, gesturing toward one table. “They’re ugly rocks.”

That’s not entirely fair. Past their melted, black crusts, most of the meteorites glint with flecks of iron. Some thin slices, when finely polished and held up to a light source, resemble stained glass. But ugly or no, the rocks have captivated human interest since people first observed them falling from the sky. Now, they’ve attracted Duke students in wide-ranging fields, from English and history to mathematics and engineering, united by a common interest in the extraterrestrial.

Gessler has a couple of theories about why North Carolina has seen a dearth of meteorite discoveries. First, farming practices have changed — farmers found many meteorites while tilling their land and dislodging the stony debris. These days, farmers rely on heavy machinery unfazed by rocks.

Second, Gessler thinks it’s possible that, despite our astronomical advances, light pollution may have clouded our chances of seeing minor meteors falling to earth.

“Maybe people just don’t look up at the sky like they used to,” he said.

Throughout this course, it seems certain his students will be looking up. Each has been assigned a North Carolina meteorite to research — they’ll ferret out old newspaper clippings and find when and where it fell, whether the land is private and what the likelihood of finding remnants now might be. Gessler will instruct them on the art and science of meteorite hunting, and eventually the students may put their skills to work in the field.

And who knows — some of them might even find the meteorites beautiful.

New Blogger: Olivia Zhu

196034_10150927127403780_429300165_n-2Hi!  My name is Olivia Zhu, and I am a sophomore biophysics major hailing from Pleasanton, California. I’m thrilled to start writing for the Duke Research Blog.

When I started my Duke career, I had absolutely no idea what research was. I had a vague conception of it as a drawn-out, painstaking process in which one traded in his life’s freedom for a micropipette. However, midway through my freshman year, a conversation with Professor Henry Greenside prompted me to reconsider. Professor Greenside inverted my perspective on research: he showed me that research did not revolve around tedious procedures, but rather around the pursuit of answers to fascinating questions. Since then, all sorts of research topics, particularly those with some aspect of physics, have captivated me. I found that research fulfills the idealistic conception I have always held of education: research represents the ultimate pursuit of pure knowledge, often without the pressures of immediate practical application.

Currently, I work in the Mooney Lab of neurobiology, which studies the learning processes in songbirds. Via surgical viral infection, I am examining the role that dopamine plays in this circuit.

In other matters, I enjoy forsaking my science-based identity by taking English, art, and history classes. I play soccer, run around campus, read classic novels, and discuss philosophy with friends. At Duke, I am a part of the Round Table and pWILD communities. Sometimes I miss hiking in California or exploring the islands in Beaufort, North Carolina, but I know there’s no place I’d rather be than here in Durham.

I’m looking forward to sharing my exploration of research at Duke!