Funded Grants

NEW HORIZONS AND A TIME-SCALE FOR LEARNING TRANSFER Identifying the dynamic of brain plasticity during tool use to boost language learning

The extreme mobility of our times brings entire sections of society to face the need of learning new languages. In adult age especially, this can become an obstacle toward integration and employment. The interest in learning during adulthood has brought neuroscience in the last decade to reconsider the common belief of a rigid brain structure in adult life. The cerebral cortex displays local changes in volume and thickness: brain structures active during training expand while learning and return to baseline afterwards. The transient expansion is thought to reflect “work in progress” within brain regions involved in learning, meant to integrate new skills in existing neural circuitries, via strengthening and/or selecting local neuronal connections. The main hypothesis of this project is that the “work in progress” may be repurposed to benefit other functions, as long as they rely on the activity of the same brain territories. To use an allegory, imagine the renovation of a building (brain area), starting after the request of ameliorations from some of the residents (trained function). This becomes the occasion for other tenants (other functions) to see realized also their own wish for improvements. All those living in the same building will benefit from the renovation, provided that everybody has posed their requests during the “work in progress”. Out of the allegory, living in the same building means neural overlap and computational commonalities of functions in the brain. The case of motor and linguistic systems represents, from this perspective, a unique opportunity. State-of-the-art research documented neural overlap and functional interactions of motor and linguistic systems. We have evidenced that tool use and syntactic processes in one’s own language share activity in the basal ganglia, whose patterns display representational similarity. This supports the existence of a supramodal syntactic function subserving both motor system and language. Learning transfer between the two abilities arises: shortly training one function enhances performance in the other, when tested immediately after. This posits solid bases for a crucial step forward, gravid of important consequences and applications: testing the ground-breaking hypothesis that we can leverage brain changes induced by long-term tool use learning to boost new language learning.

We propose a longitudinal approach, privileging data acquisition in real world context during a prolonged period of time, without sacrificing rigorous behavioral and neuroimaging measurements. We developed an app for language learning, allowing for data collection at home during several weeks, at a chosen moment of the day, with frequency and duration established by the experimenter. Similarly, for motor learning videos will be collected during home sessions of tool use training. By coupling those home assessments with weekly neuroimaging acquisitions with magnetic resonance, we will study brain changes, and their relationship with behavior, during progress in motor and linguistic performance.

The project will test the mechanistic hypothesis that cross-domain transfer effects occur between tool use and language along the temporal dynamic of brain plasticity and the results can dramatically impact the strategies of language learning during the entire life-span.