The finer points of human communication can be a puzzle. Just how does the brain sift through vast amounts of incoming information, focusing on and processing some bits and not others?
Dr. Sameer Sheth, Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery, and Dr. Nima Mesgarani, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering, are studying how the brain processes layers of speech and hearing.
The study is funded in part by a grant from Columbia University’s Research Initiatives for Science & Engineering. Their project has recently been written up in the Columbia Record.
To delve into a process that has so far been in large part a mystery, Drs. Sheth and Mesgarani are observing the brain’s electrical processes as a subject engages in high-level conversation. Their goal is to find out how different parts of the brain work together to understand what’s being said—and what’s being indicated without actually being said.
And they’re coming at the question from a new direction: placing electrodes deep in the brain. (Earlier studies have worked with sensors only on the outer surface of the brain.) With this approach, they can pinpoint both low-level sensory processing and high-level cognitive processing. The former describes the brain taking in information through the senses and reacting to it. The latter refers to the deeper levels of knowledge, memory and judgment used in problem-solving and decision-making.
They hope that the results will advance our knowledge of how the brain processes different types of communication—and why, in some cases of illness and injury, it doesn’t.
Dr. Sheth says:
“I am very excited to begin working on this project with Dr. Mesgarani.” He says, “The expertise we bring will be uniquely complementary. His research has focused on ‘bottom-up’ questions, such as how auditory processes are encoded in basic sensory and language areas within the brain.
Mine has focused on ‘top-down’ questions, such as how higher-order cognitive brain regions enable us to optimize abstract decision-making. In this project, we will combine our perspectives to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of brain function.
We hope that insights gained from this research will improve our ability to treat disorders involving language and cognition, such as autism, schizophrenia, dementia and many others.”
Dr. Sheth is Founder and Director of the Functional and Cognitive Neurophysiology laboratory, which focuses on the study of human decision-making, behavior and cognitive processes.
Find out more about him on his bio page here.
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