Re-imagining our theories of language

Over a decade ago, the neuroscientist Ev Fedorenko asked 48 English speakers to complete tasks like reading sentences, recalling information, solving math problems, and listening to music. As they did this, she scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging to see which circuits were activated. If, as linguists have proposed for decades, language is connected to thought in the human brain, then the language processing regions would be activated even during nonlinguistic tasks.

Fedorenko’s experiment, published in 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that when it comes to arithmetic, musical processing, general working memory, and other nonlinguistic tasks, language regions of the human brain showed no response. Contrary to what many linguistists have claimed, complex thought and language are separate things. One does not require the other. “We have this highly specialized place in the brain that doesn’t respond to other activities,” says Fedorenko, who is an associate professor at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “It’s not true that thought critically needs language.”

The design of the experiment, using neuroscience to understand how language works, how it evolved, and its relation to other cognitive functions, is at the heart of Fedorenko’s research. She is part of a unique intellectual triad at MIT’s Department of BCS, along with her colleagues Roger Levy and Ted Gibson. (Gibson and Fedorenko have been married since 2007). Together they have engaged in a years-long collaboration and built a significant body of research focused on some of the biggest questions in linguistics and human cognition. While working in three independent labs — EvLab, TedLab, and the Computational Psycholinguistics Lab — the researchers are motivated by a shared fascination with the human mind and how language works in the brain. “We have a great deal of interaction and collaboration,” says Levy. “It’s a very broadly collaborative, intellectually rich and diverse landscape.”

Using combinations of computational modeling, psycholinguistic experimentation, behavioral data, brain imaging, and large naturalistic language datasets, the researchers also share an answer to a fundamental question: What is the purpose of language? Of all the possible answers to why we have language, perhaps the simplest and most obvious is communication. “Believe it or not,” says Ted Gibson, “that is not the standard answer.”

Gibson first came to MIT in 1993 and joined the faculty of the Linguistics Department in 1997. Recalling the experience today, he describes it as frustrating. The field of linguistics at that time was dominated by the ideas of Noam Chomsky, one of the founders of MIT’s Graduate Program in Linguistics, who has been called the father of modern linguistics. Chomsky’s “nativist” theories of language posited that the purpose of language is the articulation of thought and that language capacity is built-in in advance of any learning. But Gibson, with his training in math and computer science, felt that researchers didn’t satisfyingly test these ideas. He believed that finding the answer to many outstanding questions about language required quantitative research, a departure from standard linguistic methodology. “There’s no reason to rely only on you and your friends, which is how linguistics has worked,” Gibson says. “The data you can get can be much broader if you crowdsource lots of people using experimental methods.” Chomsky’s ascendancy in linguistics presented Gibson with what he saw as a challenge and an opportunity. “I felt like I had to figure it out in detail and see if there was truth in these claims,” he says.

Three decades after he first joined MIT, Gibson believes that the collaborative research at BCS is persuasive and provocative, pointing to new ways of thinking about human culture and cognition. “Now we’re at a stage where it is not just arguments against. We have a lot of positive stuff saying what language is,” he explains. Levy adds: “I would say all three of us are of the view that communication plays a very import role in language learning and processing, but also in the structure of language itself.”

Levy points out that the three researchers completed PhDs in different subjects: Fedorenko in neuroscience, Gibson in computer science, Levy in linguistics. Yet for years before their paths finally converged at MIT, their shared interests in quantitative linguistic research led them to follow each other’s work closely and be influenced by it. The first collaboration between the three was in 2005 and focused on language processing in Russian relative clauses. Around that time, Gibson recalls, Levy was presenting what he describes as “lovely work” that was instrumental in helping him to understand the links between language structure and communication. “Communicative pressures drive the structures,” says Gibson. “Roger was crucial for that. He was the one helping me think about those things a long time ago.”

Levy’s lab is focused on the intersection of artificial intelligence, linguistics, and psychology, using natural language processing tools. “I try to use the tools that are afforded by mathematical and computer science approaches to language to formalize scientific hypotheses about language and the human mind and test those hypotheses,” he says.

Levy points to ongoing research between him and Gibson focused on language comprehension as an example of the benefits of collaboration. “One of the big questions is: When language understanding fails, why does it fail?” Together, the researchers have applied the concept of a “noisy channel,” first developed by the information theorist Claude Shannon in the 1950s, which says that information or messages are corrupted in transmission. “Language understanding unfolds over time, involving an ongoing integration of the past with the present,” says Levy. “Memory itself is an imperfect channel conveying the past from our brain a moment ago to our brain now in order to support successful language understanding.” Indeed, the richness of our linguistic environment, the experience of hundreds of millions of words by adulthood, may create a kind of statistical knowledge guiding our expectations, beliefs, predictions, and interpretations of linguistic meaning. “Statistical knowledge of language actually interacts with the constraints of our memory,” says Levy. “Our experience shapes our memory for language itself.”

All three researchers say they share the belief that by following the evidence, they will eventually discover an even bigger and more complete story about language. “That’s how science goes,” says Fedorenko. “Ted trained me, along with Nancy Kanwisher, and both Ted and Roger are very data-driven. If the data is not giving you the answer you thought, you don’t just keep pushing your story. You think of new hypotheses. Almost everything I have done has been like that.” At times, Fedorenko’s research into parts of the brain’s language system has surprised her and forced her to abandon her hypotheses. “In a certain project I came in with a prior idea that there would be some separation between parts that cared about combinatorics versus words meanings,” she says, “but every little bit of the language system is sensitive to both. At some point, I was like, this is what the data is telling us, and we have to roll with it.”

The researchers’ work pointing to communication as the constitutive purpose of language opens new possibilities for probing and studying non-human language. The standard claim is that human language has a drastically more extensive lexicon than animals, which have no grammar. “But many times, we don’t even know what other species are communicating,” says Gibson. “We say they can’t communicate, but we don’t know. We don’t speak their language.” Fedorenko hopes that more opportunities to make cross-species linguistic comparisons will open up. “Understanding where things are similar and where things diverge would be super useful,” she says.

Meanwhile, the potential applications of language research are far-reaching. One of Levy’s current research projects focuses on how people read and use machine learning algorithms informed by the psychology of eye movements to develop proficiency tests. By tracking the eye movements of people who speak English as a second language while they read texts in English, Levy can predict how good they are at English, an approach that could one day replace the Test of English as a Foreign Language. “It’s an implicit measure of language rather than a much more game-able test,” he says.

The researchers agree that some of the most exciting opportunities in the neuroscience of language lies with large language models that provide new opportunities for asking new questions and making new discoveries. “In the neuroscience of language, the kind of stories that we’ve been able to tell about how the brain does language were limited to verbal, descriptive hypotheses,” says Fedorenko. Computationally implemented models are now amazingly good at language and show some degree of alignment to the brain, she adds. Now, researchers can ask questions such as: what are the actual computations that cells are doing to get meaning from strings of words? “You can now use these models as tools to get insights into how humans might be processing language,” she says. “And you can take the models apart in ways you can’t take apart the brain.”

Nuevo podcast de neurociencia en español celebra su tercera temporada

Sylvia Abente, neuróloga clínica de la Universidad Nacional de Asunción (Paraguay), investiga la variedad de síntomas que son característicos de la epilepsia. Trabaja con los pueblos indígenas de Paraguay, y su dominio del español y el guaraní, los dos idiomas oficiales de Paraguay, le permite ayudar a los pacientes a encontrar las palabras que ayuden a describir sus síntomas de epilepsia para poder tratarlos.

Juan Carlos Caicedo Mera, neurocientífico de la Universidad Externado de Colombia, utiliza modelos de roedores para investigar los efectos neurobiológicos del estrés en los primeros años de vida. Ha desempeñado un papel decisivo en despertar la conciencia pública sobre los efectos biológicos y conductuales del castigo físico a edades tempranas, lo que ha propiciado cambios políticos encaminados a reducir su prevalencia como práctica cultural en Colombia.

Woman interviews a man at a table with a camera recording the interview in the foreground.
Jessica Chomik-Morales (right) interviews Pedro Maldonado at the Biomedical Neuroscience Institute of Chile at the University of Chile. Photo: Jessica Chomik-Morales

Estos son solo dos de los 33 neurocientíficos de siete países latinoamericanos que Jessica Chomik-Morales entrevistó durante 37 días para la tercera temporada de su podcast en español “Mi Última Neurona,” que se estrenará el 18 de septiembre a las 5:00 p. m. en YouTube. Cada episodio dura entre 45 y 90 minutos.

“Quise destacar sus historias para disipar la idea errónea de que la ciencia de primer nivel solo puede hacerse en Estados Unidos y Europa,” dice Chomik-Morales, “o que no se consigue en Sudamérica debido a barreras financieras y de otro tipo.”

Chomik-Morales, graduada universitaria de primera generación que creció en Asunción (Paraguay) y Boca Ratón (Florida), es ahora investigadora académica de post licenciatura en el MIT. Aquí trabaja con Laura Schulz, profesora de Ciencia Cognitiva, y Nancy Kanwisher, investigadora del McGovern Institute y la profesora Walter A. Rosenblith de Neurociencia Cognitiva, utilizando imágenes cerebrales funcionales para investigar de qué forma el cerebro explica el pasado, predice el futuro e interviene sobre el presente a traves del razonamiento causal.

“El podcast está dirigido al público en general y es apto para todas las edades,” afirma. “Se explica la neurociencia de forma fácil para inspirar a los jóvenes en el sentido de que ellos también pueden llegar a ser científicos y para mostrar la amplia variedad de investigaciones que se realizan en los países de origen de los escuchas.”

El viaje de toda una vida

“Mi Última Neurona” comenzó como una idea en 2021 y creció rápidamente hasta convertirse en una serie de conversaciones con destacados científicos hispanos, entre ellos L. Rafael Reif, ingeniero electricista venezolano-estadounidense y 17.º presidente del MIT.

Woman interviews man at a table while another man adjusts microphone.
Jessica Chomik-Morales (left) interviews the 17th president of MIT, L. Rafael Reif (right), for her podcast while Héctor De Jesús-Cortés (center) adjusts the microphone. Photo: Steph Stevens

Con las relaciones profesionales que estableció en las temporadas uno y dos, Chomik-Morales amplió su visión y reunió una lista de posibles invitados en América Latina para la tercera temporada. Con la ayuda de su asesor científico, Héctor De Jesús-Cortés, un investigador Boricua de posdoctorado del MIT, y el apoyo financiero del McGovern Institute, el Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, el Departamento de Ciencias Cerebrales y Cognitivas, y las Iniciativas Internacionales de Ciencia y Tecnología del MIT, Chomik-Morales organizó entrevistas con científicos en México, Perú, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay y Paraguay durante el verano de 2023.

Viajando en avión cada cuatro o cinco días, y consiguiendo más posibles participantes de una etapa del viaje a la siguiente por recomendación, Chomik-Morales recorrió más de 10,000 millas y recopiló 33 historias para su tercera temporada. Las áreas de especialización de los científicos abarcan toda una variedad de temas, desde los aspectos sociales de los ciclos de sueño y vigilia hasta los trastornos del estado de ánimo y la personalidad, pasando por la lingüística y el lenguaje en el cerebro o el modelado por computadoras como herramienta de investigación.

“Si alguien estudia la depresión y la ansiedad, quiero hablar sobre sus opiniones con respecto a diversas terapias, incluidos los fármacos y también las microdosis con alucinógenos,” dice Chomik-Morales. “Estas son las cosas de las que habla la gente.” No le teme a abordar temas delicados, como la relación entre las hormonas y la orientación sexual, porque “es importante que la gente escuche a los expertos hablar de estas cosas,” comenta.

El tono de las entrevistas va de lo informal (“el investigador y yo somos como amigos”, dice) a lo pedagógico (“de profesor a alumno”). Lo que no cambia es la accesibilidad (se evitan términos técnicos) y las preguntas iniciales y finales en cada entrevista. Para empezar: “¿Cómo ha llegado hasta aquí? ¿Qué le atrajo de la neurociencia?”. Para terminar: “¿Qué consejo le daría a un joven estudiante latino interesado en Ciencias, Ingeniería, Tecnología y Matemáticas[1]?

Permite que el marco de referencia de sus escuchas sea lo que la guíe. “Si no entendiera algo o pensara que se podría explicar mejor, diría: ‘Hagamos una pausa’. ¿Qué significa esta palabra?”, aunque ella conociera la definición. Pone el ejemplo de la palabra “MEG” (magnetoencefalografía): la medición del campo magnético generado por la actividad eléctrica de las neuronas, que suele combinarse con la resonancia magnética para producir imágenes de fuentes magnéticas. Para aterrizar el concepto, preguntaría: “¿Cómo funciona? ¿Este tipo de exploración hace daño al paciente?”.

Allanar el camino para la creación de redes globales

El equipo de Chomik-Morales era escaso: tres micrófonos Yeti y una cámara de video Canon conectada a su computadora portátil. Las entrevistas se realizaban en salones de clase, oficinas universitarias, en la casa de los investigadores e incluso al aire libre, ya que no había estudios insonorizados disponibles. Ha estado trabajando con el ingeniero de sonido David Samuel Torres, de Puerto Rico, para obtener un sonido más claro.

Ninguna limitación tecnológica podía ocultar la importancia del proyecto para los científicos participantes.

Two women talking at a table in front of a camera.
Jessica Chomik-Morales (left) interviews Josefina Cruzat (right) at Adolfo Ibañez University in Chile. Photo: Jessica Chomik-Morales

“Mi Última Neurona” muestra nuestro conocimiento diverso en un escenario global, proporcionando un retrato más preciso del panorama científico en América Latina,” dice Constanza Baquedano, originaria de Chile. “Es un avance hacia la creación de una representación más inclusiva en la ciencia”. Baquendano es profesora adjunta de psicología en la Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, en donde utiliza electrofisiología y mediciones electroencefalográficas y conductuales para investigar la meditación y otros estados contemplativos. “Estaba ansiosa por ser parte de un proyecto que buscara brindar reconocimiento a nuestras experiencias compartidas como mujeres latinoamericanas en el campo de la neurociencia.”

“Comprender los retos y las oportunidades de los neurocientíficos que trabajan en América Latina es primordial,” afirma Agustín Ibáñez, profesor y director del Instituto Latinoamericano de Salud Cerebral (BrainLat) de la Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez de Chile. “Esta región, que se caracteriza por tener importantes desigualdades que afectan la salud cerebral, también presenta desafíos únicos en el campo de la neurociencia,” afirma Ibáñez, quien se interesa principalmente en la intersección de la neurociencia social, cognitiva y afectiva. “Al centrarse en América Latina, el podcast da a conocer las historias que frecuentemente no se cuentan en la mayoría de los medios. Eso tiende puentes y allana el camino para la creación de redes globales.”

Por su parte, Chomik-Morales confía en que su podcast generará un gran número de seguidores en América Latina. “Estoy muy agradecida por el espléndido patrocinio del MIT,” dice Chomik-Morales. “Este es el proyecto más gratificante que he hecho en mi vida.”


[1] En inglés Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)

New Spanish-language neuroscience podcast flourishes in third season

A Spanish version of this news story can be found here. (Una versión en español de esta noticia se puede encontrar aquí.)


Sylvia Abente, a clinical neurologist at the Universidad Nacional de Asunción in Paraguay, investigates the range of symptoms that characterize epilepsy. She works with indigenous peoples in Paraguay, and her fluency in Spanish and Guarni—the two official languages of Paraguay—allows her to help patients find the words to describe their epilepsy symptoms so she can treat them.

Juan Carlos Caicedo Mera, a neuroscientist at the Universidad Externado de Colombia, uses rodent models to research the neurobiological effects of early life stress. He has been instrumental in raising public awareness about the biological and behavioral effects of early-age physical punishment, leading to policy changes aimed at reducing its prevalence as a cultural practice in Colombia.

Woman interviews a man at a table with a camera recording the interview in the foreground.
Jessica Chomik-Morales (right) interviews Pedro Maldonado at the Biomedical Neuroscience Institute of Chile at the University of Chile. Photo: Jessica Chomik-Morales

Those are just two of the 33 neuroscientists in seven Latin American countries that Jessica Chomik-Morales interviewed over 37 days for the expansive third season of her Spanish-language podcast, “Mi Ultima Neurona” (“My Last Neuron”), which launches Sept. 18 at 5 p.m. on YouTube. Each episode runs between 45 and 90 minutes.

“I wanted to shine a spotlight on their stories to dispel the misconception that excellent science can only be done in America and Europe,” says Chomik-Morales, “or that it isn’t being produced in South America because of financial and other barriers.”

A first-generation college graduate who grew up in Asunción, Paraguay and Boca Raton, Florida, Chomik-Morales is now a postbaccalaureate research scholar at MIT. Here she works with Laura Schulz, professor of cognitive science, and Nancy Kanwisher, McGovern Institute investigator and the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, using functional brain imaging to investigate how the brain explains the past, predicts the future, and intervenes on the present.

“The podcast is for the general public and is suitable for all ages,” she says. “It explains neuroscience in a digestable way to inspire young people that they, too, can become scientists and to show the rich variety of reseach that is being done in listeners’ home countries.”

Journey of a lifetime

“Mi Ultima Neurona” began as an idea in 2021 and grew rapidly into a collection of conversations with prominent Hispanic scientists, including L. Rafael Reif, a Venezuelan-American electrical engineer and the 17th president of MIT.

Woman interviews man at a table while another man adjusts microphone.
Jessica Chomik-Morales (left) interviews the 17th president of MIT, L. Rafael Reif (right), for her podcast while Héctor De Jesús-Cortés (center) adjusts the microphone. Photo: Steph Stevens

Building upon the professional relationships she built in seasons one and two, Chomik-Morales broadened her vision, and assembled a list of potential guests in Latin America for season three.  With research help from her scientific advisor, Héctor De Jesús-Cortés, an MIT postdoc from Puerto Rico, and financial support from the McGovern Institute, the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives, Chomik-Morales lined up interviews with scientists in Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay during the summer of 2023.

Traveling by plane every four or five days, and garnering further referrals from one leg of the trip to the next through word of mouth, Chomik-Morales logged over 10,000 miles and collected 33 stories for her third season. The scientists’ areas of specialization run the gamut— from the social aspects of sleep/wake cycles to mood and personality disorders, from linguistics and language in the brain to computational modeling as a research tool.

“This is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.” – Jessica Chomik-Morales

“If somebody studies depression and anxiety, I want to touch on their opinions regarding various therapies, including drugs, even microdosing with hallucinogens,” says Chomik-Morales. “These are the things people are talking about.” She’s not afraid to broach sensitive topics, like the relationship between hormones and sexual orientation, because “it’s important that people listen to experts talk about these things,” she says.

The tone of the interviews range from casual (“the researcher and I are like friends,” she says) to pedagogic (“professor to student”). The only constants are accessibility—avoiding technical terms—and the opening and closing questions in each one. To start: “How did you get here? What drew you to neuroscience?” To end: “What advice would you give a young Latino student who is interested in STEM?”

She lets her listeners’ frame of reference be her guide. “If I didn’t understand something or thought it could be explained better, I’d say, ‘Let’s pause. ‘What does this word mean?’ ” even if she knew the definition herself. She gives the example of the word “MEG” (magnetoencephalography)—the measurement of the magnetic field generated by the electrical activity of neurons, which is usually combined with magnetic resonance imaging to produce magnetic source imaging. To bring the concept down to Earth, she’d ask: “How does it work? Does this kind of scan hurt the patient?’ ”

Paving the way for global networking

Chomik-Morales’s equipment was spare: three Yeti microphones and a Canon video camera connected to her laptop computer. The interviews took place in classrooms, university offices, at researchers’ homes, even outside—no soundproof studios were available. She has been working with sound engineer David Samuel Torres, from Puerto Rico, to clarify the audio.

No technological limitations could obscure the significance of the project for the participating scientists.

Two women talking at a table in front of a camera.
Jessica Chomik-Morales (left) interviews Josefina Cruzat (right) at Adolfo Ibañez University in Chile. Photo: Jessica Chomik-Morales

“‘Mi Ultima Neurona’ showcases our diverse expertise on a global stage, providing a more accurate portrayal of the scientific landscape in Latin America,” says Constanza Baquedano, who is from Chile. “It’s a step toward creating a more inclusive representation in science.” Baquendano is an assistant professor of psychology at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, where she uses electrophysiology and electroencephalographic and behavioral measurements to investigate meditation and other contemplative states. “I was eager to be a part of a project that aimed to bring recognition to our shared experiences as Latin American women in the field of neuroscience.”

“Understanding the challenges and opportunities of neuroscientists working in Latin America is vital,”says Agustín Ibañez, professor and director of the Latin American Brain Health Institute (BrainLat) at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Chile. “This region, characterized by significant inequalities affecting brain health, also presents unique challenges in the field of neuroscience,” says Ibañez, who is primarily interested in the intersection of social, cognitive, and affective neuroscience. “By focusing on Latin America, the podcast brings forth the narratives that often remain untold in the mainstream. That bridges gaps and paves the way for global networking.”

For her part, Chomik-Morales is hopeful that her podcast will generate a strong following in Latin America. “I am so grateful for the wonderful sponsorship from MIT,” says Chomik-Morales. “This is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.”

Unpacking auditory hallucinations

Tamar Regev, the 2022–2024 Poitras Center Postdoctoral Fellow, has identified a new neural system that may shed light on the auditory hallucinations experienced by patients diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Scientist portrait
Tamar Regev is the 2022–2024 Poitras Center Postdoctoral
Fellow in Ev Fedorenko’s lab at the McGovern Institute. Photo: Steph Stevens

“The system appears integral to prosody processing,”says Regev. “‘Prosody’ can be described as the melody of speech — auditory gestures that we use when we’re speaking to signal linguistic, emotional, and social information.” The prosody processing system Regev has uncovered is distinct from the lower-level auditory speech processing system as well as the higher-level language processing system. Regev aims to understand how the prosody system, along with the speech and language processing systems, may be impaired in neuropsychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, especially when experienced with auditory hallucinations in the form of speech.

“Knowing which neural systems are affected by schizophrenia can lay the groundwork for future research into interventions that target the mechanisms underlying symptoms such as hallucinations,” says Regev. Passionate about bridging gaps between disciplines, she is collaborating with Ann Shinn, MD, MPH, of McLean Hospital’s Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder Research Program.

Regev’s graduate work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem focused on exploring the auditory system with electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain using small electrodes attached to the scalp. She came to MIT to study under Evelina Fedorenko, a world leader in researching the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying language processing. With Fedorenko she has learned to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which reveals the brain’s functional anatomy by measuring small changes in blood flow that occur with brain activity.

“I hope my research will lead to a better understanding of the neural architectures that underlie these disorders—and eventually help us as a society to better understand and accept special populations.”- Tamar Regev

“EEG has very good temporal resolution but poor spatial resolution, while fMRI provides a map of the brain showing where neural signals are coming from,” says Regev. “With fMRI I can connect my work on the auditory system with that on the language system.”

Regev developed a unique fMRI paradigm to do that. While her human subjects are in the scanner, she is comparing brain responses to speech with expressive prosody versus flat prosody to find the role of the prosody system among the auditory, speech, and language regions. She plans to apply her findings to analyze a rich data set drawn from fMRI studies that Fedorenko and Shinn began a few years ago while investigating the neural basis of auditory hallucinations in patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Regev is exploring how the neural architecture may differ between control subjects and those with and without auditory hallucinations as well as those with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“This is the first time these questions are being asked using the individual-subject approach developed in the Fedorenko lab,” says Regev. The approach provides superior sensitivity, functional resolution, interpretability, and versatility compared with the group analyses of the past. “I hope my research will lead to a better understanding of the neural architectures that underlie these disorders,” says Regev, “and eventually help us as a society to better understand and accept special populations.”

Using the tools of neuroscience to personalize medicine

Profile picture of Sadie Zacharek
Graduate student Sadie Zacharek. Photo: Steph Stevens

From summer internships as an undergraduate studying neuroscience at the University of Notre Dame, Sadie Zacharek developed interests in areas ranging from neuroimaging to developmental psychopathologies, from basic-science research to clinical translation. When she interviewed with John Gabrieli, the Grover Hermann Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Cognitive Neuroscience, for a position in his lab as a graduate fellow, everything came together.

“The brain provides a window not only into dysfunction but also into response to treatment,” she says. “John and I both wanted to explore how we might use neuroimaging as a step toward personalized medicine.”

Zacharek joined the Gabrieli lab in 2020 and currently holds the Sheldon and Janet Razin’59 Fellowship for 2023-2024. In the Gabrieli lab, she has been designing and helping launch studies focusing on the neural mechanisms driving childhood depression and social anxiety disorder with the aim of developing strategies to predict which treatments will be most effective for individual patients.

Helping children and adults

“Depression in children is hugely understudied,” says Zacharek. “Most of the research has focused on adult and adolescent depression.” But the clinical presentation differs in the two groups, she says. “In children, irritability can be the primary presenting symptom rather than melancholy.” To get to the root of childhood depression, she is exploring both the brain basis of the disorder and how the parent-child relationship might influence symptoms. “Parents help children develop their emotion-regulation skills,” she says. “Knowing the underlying mechanisms could, in family-focused therapy, help them turn a ‘downward spiral’ into irritability, into an ‘upward spiral,’ away from it.”

The studies she is conducting include functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of children to explore their brain responses to positive and negative stimuli, fMRI of both the child and parent to compare maps of their brains’ functional connectivity, and magnetic resonance spectroscopy to explore the neurochemical environment of both, including quantities of neurometabolites that indicate inflammation (higher levels have been found to correlate with depressive pathology).

“If we could find a normative range for neurochemicals and then see how far someone has deviated in depression, or a neural signature of elevated activity in a brain region, that could serve as a biomarker for future interventions,” she says. “Such a biomarker would be especially relevant for children given that they are less able to articulately convey their symptoms or internal experience.”

“The brain provides a window not only into dysfunction but also into response to treatment.” – Sadie Zacharek

Social anxiety disorder is a chronic and disabling condition that affects about 7.1 percent of U.S. adults. Treatment usually involves cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), and then, if there is limited response, the addition of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), as an anxiolytic.

But what if research could reveal the key neurocircuitry of social anxiety disorder as well as changes associated with treatment? That could open the door to predicting treatment outcome.

Zacharek is collecting neuroimaging data, as well as clinical assessments, from participants. The participants diagnosed with social anxiety disorder will then undergo 12 weeks of group CBT, followed by more data collection, and then individual CBT for 12 weeks plus an SSRI for those who do not benefit from the group CBT. The results from those two time points will help determine the best treatment for each person.

“We hope to build a predictive model that could enable clinicians to scan a new patient and select the optimal treatment,” says Zacharek. “John’s many long-standing relationships with clinicians in this area make all of these translational studies possible.”

Computational model mimics humans’ ability to predict emotions

When interacting with another person, you likely spend part of your time trying to anticipate how they will feel about what you’re saying or doing. This task requires a cognitive skill called theory of mind, which helps us to infer other people’s beliefs, desires, intentions, and emotions.

MIT neuroscientists have now designed a computational model that can predict other people’s emotions — including joy, gratitude, confusion, regret, and embarrassment — approximating human observers’ social intelligence. The model was designed to predict the emotions of people involved in a situation based on the prisoner’s dilemma, a classic game theory scenario in which two people must decide whether to cooperate with their partner or betray them.

To build the model, the researchers incorporated several factors that have been hypothesized to influence people’s emotional reactions, including that person’s desires, their expectations in a particular situation, and whether anyone was watching their actions.

“These are very common, basic intuitions, and what we said is, we can take that very basic grammar and make a model that will learn to predict emotions from those features,” says Rebecca Saxe, the John W. Jarve Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study.

Sean Dae Houlihan PhD ’22, a postdoc at the Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth College, is the lead author of the paper, which appears today in Philosophical Transactions A. Other authors include Max Kleiman-Weiner PhD ’18, a postdoc at MIT and Harvard University; Luke Hewitt PhD ’22, a visiting scholar at Stanford University; and Joshua Tenenbaum, a professor of computational cognitive science at MIT and a member of the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines and MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Predicting emotions

While a great deal of research has gone into training computer models to infer someone’s emotional state based on their facial expression, that is not the most important aspect of human emotional intelligence, Saxe says. Much more important is the ability to predict someone’s emotional response to events before they occur.

“The most important thing about what it is to understand other people’s emotions is to anticipate what other people will feel before the thing has happened,” she says. “If all of our emotional intelligence was reactive, that would be a catastrophe.”

To try to model how human observers make these predictions, the researchers used scenarios taken from a British game show called “Golden Balls.” On the show, contestants are paired up with a pot of $100,000 at stake. After negotiating with their partner, each contestant decides, secretly, whether to split the pool or try to steal it. If both decide to split, they each receive $50,000. If one splits and one steals, the stealer gets the entire pot. If both try to steal, no one gets anything.

Depending on the outcome, contestants may experience a range of emotions — joy and relief if both contestants split, surprise and fury if one’s opponent steals the pot, and perhaps guilt mingled with excitement if one successfully steals.

To create a computational model that can predict these emotions, the researchers designed three separate modules. The first module is trained to infer a person’s preferences and beliefs based on their action, through a process called inverse planning.

“This is an idea that says if you see just a little bit of somebody’s behavior, you can probabilistically infer things about what they wanted and expected in that situation,” Saxe says.

Using this approach, the first module can predict contestants’ motivations based on their actions in the game. For example, if someone decides to split in an attempt to share the pot, it can be inferred that they also expected the other person to split. If someone decides to steal, they may have expected the other person to steal, and didn’t want to be cheated. Or, they may have expected the other person to split and decided to try to take advantage of them.

The model can also integrate knowledge about specific players, such as the contestant’s occupation, to help it infer the players’ most likely motivation.

The second module compares the outcome of the game with what each player wanted and expected to happen. Then, a third module predicts what emotions the contestants may be feeling, based on the outcome and what was known about their expectations. This third module was trained to predict emotions based on predictions from human observers about how contestants would feel after a particular outcome. The authors emphasize that this is a model of human social intelligence, designed to mimic how observers causally reason about each other’s emotions, not a model of how people actually feel.

“From the data, the model learns that what it means, for example, to feel a lot of joy in this situation, is to get what you wanted, to do it by being fair, and to do it without taking advantage,” Saxe says.

Core intuitions

Once the three modules were up and running, the researchers used them on a new dataset from the game show to determine how the models’ emotion predictions compared with the predictions made by human observers. This model performed much better at that task than any previous model of emotion prediction.

The model’s success stems from its incorporation of key factors that the human brain also uses when predicting how someone else will react to a given situation, Saxe says. Those include computations of how a person will evaluate and emotionally react to a situation, based on their desires and expectations, which relate to not only material gain but also how they are viewed by others.

“Our model has those core intuitions, that the mental states underlying emotion are about what you wanted, what you expected, what happened, and who saw. And what people want is not just stuff. They don’t just want money; they want to be fair, but also not to be the sucker, not to be cheated,” she says.

“The researchers have helped build a deeper understanding of how emotions contribute to determining our actions; and then, by flipping their model around, they explain how we can use people’s actions to infer their underlying emotions. This line of work helps us see emotions not just as ‘feelings’ but as playing a crucial, and subtle, role in human social behavior,” says Nick Chater, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Warwick, who was not involved in the study.

In future work, the researchers hope to adapt the model so that it can perform more general predictions based on situations other than the game-show scenario used in this study. They are also working on creating models that can predict what happened in the game based solely on the expression on the faces of the contestants after the results were announced.

The research was funded by the McGovern Institute; the Paul E. and Lilah Newton Brain Science Award; the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines; the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab; and the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative.

Real-time feedback helps adolescents with depression quiet the mind

Real-time feedback about brain activity can help adolescents with depression or anxiety quiet their minds, according to a new study from MIT scientists. The researchers, led by McGovern research affiliate Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show patients what’s happening in their brain as they practice mindfulness inside the scanner and to encourage them to focus on the present. They report in the journal Molecular Psychiatry that doing so settles down neural networks that are associated with symptoms of depression.

McGovern research affiliate Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli in the Martinos Imaging Center.

“We know this mindfulness meditation is really good for kids and teens, and we think this real-time fMRI neurofeedback is really a way to engage them and provide a visual representation of how they’re doing,” says Whitfield-Gabrieli. “And once we train people how to do mindfulness meditation, they can do it on their own at any time, wherever they are.”

The approach could be a valuable tool to alleviate or prevent depression in young people, which has been on the rise in recent years and escalated alarmingly during the Covid-19 pandemic. “This has gone from bad to catastrophic, in my perspective,” Whitfield-Gabrieli says. “We have to think out of the box and come up some really innovative ways to help.”

Default mode network

Mindfulness meditation, in which practitioners focus their awareness on the present moment, can modulate activity within the brain’s default mode network, which is so named because it is most active when a person is not focused on any particular task. Two hubs within the default mode network, the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex, are of particular interest to Whitfield-Gabrieli and her colleagues, due to a potential role in the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

“These two core hubs are very engaged when we’re thinking about the past or the future and we’re not really engaged in the present moment,” she explains. “If we’re in a healthy state of mind, we may be reminiscing about the past or planning for the future. But if we’re depressed, that reminiscing may turn into rumination or obsessively rehashing the past. If we’re particularly anxious, we may be obsessively worrying about the future.”

Whitfield-Gabrieli explains that these key hubs are often hyperconnected in people with anxiety and depression. The more tightly correlated the activity of the two regions are, the worse a person’s symptoms are likely to be. Mindfulness, she says, can help interrupt that hyperconnectivity.

“Mindfulness really helps to focus on the now, which just precludes all of this mind wandering and repetitive negative thinking,” she explains. In fact, she and her colleagues have found that mindfulness practice can reduce stress and improve attention in children. But she acknowledges that it can be difficult to engage young people and help them focus on the practice.

Tuning the mind

To help people visualize the benefits of their mindfulness practice, the researchers developed a game that can be played while an MRI scanner tracks a person’s brain activity. On a screen inside the scanner, the participant sees a ball and two circles. The circle at the top of the screen represents a desirable state in which the activity of the brain’s default mode network has been reduced, and the activity of a network the brain uses to focus on attention-demanding tasks—the frontal parietal network—has increased. An initial fMRI scan identifies these networks in each individual’s brain, creating a customized mental map on which the game is based.

“They’re training their brain to tune their mind. And they love it.” – Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli

As the person practices mindfulness meditation, which they learn prior to entering the scanner, the default mode network in the brain quiets while the frontal parietal mode activates. When the scanner detects this change, the ball moves and eventually enters its target. With an initial success, the target shrinks, encouraging even more focus. When the participant’s mind wanders from their task, the default mode network activation increases (relative to the frontal parietal network) and the ball moves down towards the second circle, which represents an undesirable state. “Basically, they’re just moving this ball with their brain,” Whitfield-Gabrieli says. “They’re training their brain to tune their mind. And they love it.”

Nine individuals between the ages of 17 and 19 with a history of major depression or anxiety disorders tried this new approach to mindfulness training, and for each of them, Whitfield-Gabrieli’s team saw a reduction in connectivity within the default mode network. Now they are working to determine whether an electroencephalogram, in which brain activity is measured with noninvasive electrodes, can be used to provide similar neurofeedback during mindfulness training—an approach that could be more accessible for broad clinical use.

Whitfield-Gabrieli notes that hyperconnectivity in the default mode network is also associated with psychosis, and she and her team have found that mindfulness meditation with real-time fMRI feedback can help reduce symptoms in adults with schizophrenia. Future studies are planned to investigate how the method impacts teens’ ability to establish a mindfulness practice and its potential effects on depression symptoms.

2023 MacVicar Faculty Fellows named

The Office of the Vice Chancellor and the Registrar’s Office have announced this year’s Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellows: professor of brain and cognitive sciences John Gabrieli, associate professor of literature Marah Gubar, professor of biology Adam C. Martin, and associate professor of architecture Lawrence “Larry” Sass.

For more than 30 years, the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program has recognized exemplary and sustained contributions to undergraduate education at MIT. The program is named in honor of Margaret MacVicar, the first dean for undergraduate education and founder of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). New fellows are chosen every year through a competitive nomination process that includes submission of letters of support from colleagues, students, and alumni; review by an advisory committee led by the vice chancellor; and a final selection by the provost. Fellows are appointed to a 10-year term and receive $10,000 per year of discretionary funds.

Gabrieli, Gubar, Martin, and Sass join an elite group of more than 130 scholars from across the Institute who are committed to curricular innovation, excellence in teaching, and supporting students both in and out of the classroom.

John Gabrieli

“When I learned of this wonderful honor, I felt gratitude — for how MIT values teaching and learning, how my faculty colleagues bring such passion to their teaching, and how the students have such great curiosity for learning,” says new MacVicar Fellow John Gabrieli.

Gabrieli PhD ’87 received a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale University and his PhD in behavioral neuroscience from MIT. He is the Grover M. Hermann Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive sciences. Gabrieli is also an investigator in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the founding director of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili). He holds appointments in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and studies the organization of memory, thought, and emotion in the human brain.

He joined Course 9 as a professor in 2005 and since then, he has taught over 3,000 undergraduates through the department’s introductory course, 9.00 (Introduction to Psychological Science). Gabrieli was recognized with departmental awards for excellence in teaching in 2009, 2012, and 2015. Highly sought after by undergraduate researchers, the Gabrieli Laboratory (GabLab) hosts five to 10 UROPs each year.

A unique element of Gabrieli’s classes is his passionate, hands-on teaching style and his use of interactive demonstrations, such as optical illusions and personality tests, to help students grasp some of the most fundamental topics in psychology.

His former teaching assistant Daniel Montgomery ’22 writes, “I was impressed by his enthusiasm and ability to keep students engaged throughout the lectures … John clearly has a desire to help students become excited about the material he’s teaching.”

Senior Elizabeth Carbonell agrees: “The excitement professor Gabrieli brought to lectures by starting with music every time made the classroom an enjoyable atmosphere conducive to learning … he always found a way to make every lecture relatable to the students, teaching psychological concepts that would shine a light on our own human emotions.”

Lecturer and 9.00 course coordinator Laura Frawley says, “John constantly innovates … He uses research-based learning techniques in his class, including blended learning, active learning, and retrieval practice.” His findings on blended learning resulted in two MITx offerings including 9.00x (Learning and Memory), which utilizes a nontraditional approach to assignments and exams to improve how students retrieve and remember information.

In addition, he is known for being a devoted teacher who believes in caring for the student as a whole. Through MITili’s Mental Wellness Initiative, Gabrieli, along with a compassionate team of faculty and staff, are working to better understand how mental health conditions impact learning.

Associate department head and associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences Josh McDermott calls him “an exceptional educator who has left his mark on generations of MIT undergraduate students with his captivating, innovative, and thoughtful approach to teaching.”

Mariana Gomez de Campo ’20 concurs: “There are certain professors that make their mark on students’ lives; professor Gabrieli permanently altered the course of mine.”

Laura Schulz, MacVicar Fellow and associate department head of brain and cognitive sciences, remarks, “His approach is visionary … John’s manner with students is unfailingly gracious … he hastens to remind them that they are as good as it gets, the smartest and brightest of their generation … it is the kind of warm, welcoming, inclusive approach to teaching that subtly but effectively reminds students that they belong here at MIT … It is little wonder that they love him.”

Marah Gubar

Marah Gubar joined MIT as an associate professor of literature in 2014. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and a PhD from Princeton University. Gubar taught in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh and served as director of the Children’s Literature Program. She received MIT’s James A. and Ruth Levitan Teaching Award in 2019 and the Teaching with Digital Technology Award in 2020.

Gubar’s research focuses on children’s literature, history of children’s theater, performance, and 19th- and 20th-century representations of childhood. Her research and pedagogies underscore the importance of integrated learning.

Colleagues at MIT note her efficacy in introducing new concepts and new subjects into the literature curriculum during her tenure as curricular chair. Gubar set the stage for wide-ranging curricular improvements, resulting in a host of literature subjects on interrelated topics within and across disciplines.

Gubar teaches several classes, including 21L.452 (Literature and Philosophy) and 21L.500 (How We Got to Hamilton). Her lectures provide uniquely enriching learning experiences in which her students are encouraged to dive into literary texts; craft thoughtful, persuasive arguments; and engage in lively intellectual debate.

Gubar encourages others to bring fresh ideas and think outside the box. For example, her seminar on “Hamilton” challenges students to recontextualize the hip-hop musical in several intellectual traditions. Professor Eric Klopfer, head of the Comparative Media Studies Program/Writing and interim head of literature, calls Gubar “a thoughtful, caring instructor, and course designer … She thinks critically about whose story is being told and by whom.”

MacVicar Fellow and professor of literature Stephen Tapscott praises her experimentation, abstract thinking, and storytelling: “Professor Gubar’s ability to frame intellectual questions in terms of problems, developments, and performance is an important dimension of the genius of her teaching.”

“Marah is hands-down the most enthusiastic, effective, and engaged professor I had the pleasure of learning from at MIT,” writes one student. “She’s one of the few instructors I’ve had who never feels the need to reassert her place in the didactic hierarchy, but approaches her students as intellectual equals.”

Tapscott continues, “She welcomes participation in ways that enrich the conversation, open new modes of communication, and empower students as autonomous literary critics. In professor Gubar’s classroom we learn by doing … and that progress also includes ‘doing’ textual analysis, cultural history, and abstract literary theory.”

Gubar is also a committed mentor and student testimonials highlight her supportive approach. One of her former students remarked that Gubar “has a strong drive to be inclusive, and truly cares about ‘getting it right’ … her passion for literature and teaching, together with her drive for inclusivity, her ability to take accountability, and her compassion and empathy for her students, make [her] a truly remarkable teacher.”

On receiving this award Marah Gubar writes, “The best word I can think of to describe how I reacted to hearing that I had received this very overwhelming honor is ‘plotzing.’ The Yiddish verb ‘to plotz’ literally means to crack, burst, or collapse, so that captures how undone I was. I started to cry, because it suddenly struck me how much joy my father, Edward Gubar, would have taken in this amazing news. He was a teacher, too, and he died during the first phase of this terrible pandemic that we’re still struggling to get through.”

Adam C. Martin

Adam C. Martin is a professor and undergraduate officer in the Department of Biology. He studies the molecular mechanisms that underlie tissue form and function. His research interests include gastrulation, embryotic development, cytoskeletal dynamics, and the coordination of cellular behavior. Martin received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley and his BS in biology (genetics) from Cornell University. Martin joined the Course 7 faculty in 2011.

“I am overwhelmed with gratitude knowing that this has come from our students. The fact that they spent time to contribute to a nomination is incredibly meaningful to me,” says Martin. “I want to also thank all of my faculty colleagues with whom I have taught, appreciate, and learned immensely from over the past 12 years. I am a better teacher because of them and inspired by their dedication.”

He is committed to undergraduate education, teaching several key department offerings including 7.06 (Cell Biology), 7.016 (Introductory Biology), 7.002 (Fundamentals of Experimental Molecular Biology), and 7.102 (Introduction to Molecular Biology Techniques).

Martin’s style combines academic and scientific expertise with creative elements like props and demonstrations. His “energy and passion for the material” is obvious, writes Iain Cheeseman, associate department head and the Herman and Margaret Sokol Professor of Biology. “In addition to creating engaging lectures, Adam went beyond the standard classroom requirements to develop videos and animations (in collaboration with the Biology MITx team) to illustrate core cell biological approaches and concepts.”

What sets Martin apart is his connection with students, his positive spirit, and his welcoming demeanor. Apolonia Gardner ’22 reflects on the way he helped her outside of class through his running group, which connects younger students with seniors in his lab. “Professor Martin was literally committed to ‘going the extra mile’ by inviting his students to join him on runs around the Charles River on Friday afternoons,” she says.

Amy Keating, department head and Jay A. Stein professor of biology, and professor of biological engineering, goes on to praise Martin’s ability to attract students to Course 7 and guide them through their educational experience in his role as the director of undergraduate studies. “He hosts social events, presides at our undergraduate research symposium and the department’s undergraduate graduation and awards banquet, and works with the Biology Undergraduate Student Association,” she says.

As undergraduate officer, Martin is involved in both advising and curriculum building. He mentors UROP students, serves as a first-year advisor, and is a current member of MIT’s Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP).

Martin also brings a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as evidenced by his creation of a DEI journal club in his lab so that students have a dedicated space to discuss issues and challenges. Course 7 DEI officer Hallie Dowling-Huppert writes that Martin “thinks deeply about how DEI efforts are created to ensure that department members receive the maximum benefit. Adam considers all perspectives when making decisions, and is extremely empathetic and caring towards his students.”

“He makes our world so much better,” Keating observes. “Adam is a gem.”

Lawrence “Larry” Sass

Larry Sass SM ’94, PhD ’00 is an associate professor in the Department of Architecture. He earned his PhD and SM in architecture at MIT, and has a BArch from Pratt Institute in New York City. Sass joined the faculty in the Department of Architecture in 2002. His work focuses on the delivery of affordable housing for low-income families. He was included in an exhibit titled “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Sass’s teaching blends computation with design. His two signature courses, 4.500 (Design Computation: Art, Objects and Space) and 4.501 (Tiny Fab: Advancements in Rapid Design and Fabrication of Small Homes), reflect his specialization in digitally fabricating buildings and furniture from machines.

Professor and head of architecture Nicholas de Monchaux writes, “his classes provide crucial instruction and practice with 3D modeling and computer-generated rendering and animation …  [He] links digital design to fabrication, in a process that invites students to define desirable design attributes of an object, develop a digital model, prototype it, and construct it at full scale.”

More generally, Sass’ approach is to help students build confidence in their own design process through hands-on projects. MIT Class of 1942 Professor John Ochsendorf, MacVicar Fellow, and founding director of the Morningside Academy for Design with appointments in the departments of architecture and civil and environmental engineering, confirms, “Larry’s teaching is a perfect embodiment of the ‘mens et manus’ spirit … [he] requires his students to go back and forth from mind and hand throughout each design project.”

Students say that his classes are a journey of self-discovery, allowing them to learn more about themselves and their own abilities. Senior Natasha Hirt notes, “What I learned from Larry was not something one can glean from a textbook, but a new way of seeing space … he tectonically shifted my perspective on buildings. He also shifted my perspective on myself. I’m a better designer for his teachings, and perhaps more importantly, I better understand how I design.”

Senior Izzi Waitz echoes this sentiment: “Larry emphasizes the importance of intentionally thinking through your designs and being confident in your choices … he challenges, questions, and prompts you so that you learn to defend and support yourself on your own.”

As a UROP coordinator, Sass assures students that the “sky is the limit” and all ideas are welcome. Postgraduate teaching fellow and research associate Myles Sampson says, “During the last year of my SM program, I assisted Larry in conducting a year-long UROP project … He structured the learning experience in a way that allowed the students to freely flex their design muscles: no idea was too outrageous.”

Sass is equally devoted to his students outside the classroom. In his role as head of house at MacGregor House, he lives in community with more than 300 undergraduates each year, providing academic guidance, creating residential programs and recreational activities, and ensuring that student wellness and mental health is a No. 1 priority.

Professor of architecture and MacVicar Fellow Les Norford says, “In two significant ways, Larry has been ahead of his time: combining digital representation and design with making and being alert to the well-being of his students.”

“In his kindness, he honors the memory of Margaret MacVicar, as well as the spirit of MIT itself,” Hirt concludes. “He is a designer, a craftsman, and an innovator. He is an inspiration and a compass.”

On receiving this award, Sass is full of excitement: “I love teaching and being part of the MIT community. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of the MacVicar family of fellows.”

Studies of unusual brains reveal critical insights into brain organization, function

EG (a pseudonym) is an accomplished woman in her early 60s: she is a college graduate and has an advanced professional degree. She has a stellar vocabulary—in the 98th percentile, according to tests—and has mastered a foreign language (Russian) to the point that she sometimes dreams in it.

She also has, likely since birth, been missing her left temporal lobe, a part of the brain known to be critical for language.

In 2016, EG contacted McGovern Institute Investigator Evelina Fedorenko, who studies the computations and brain regions that underlie language processing, to see if her team might be interested in including her in their research.

“EG didn’t know about her missing temporal lobe until age 25, when she had a brain scan for an unrelated reason,” says Fedorenko, the Frederick A. (1971) and Carole J. Middleton Career Development Associate Professor of Neuroscience at MIT. “As with many cases of early brain damage, she had no linguistic or cognitive deficits, but brains like hers are invaluable for understanding how cognitive functions reorganize in the tissue that remains.”

“I told her we definitely wanted to study her brain.” – Ev Fedorenko

Previous studies have shown that language processing relies on an interconnected network of frontal and temporal regions in the left hemisphere of the brain. EG’s unique brain presented an opportunity for Fedorenko’s team to explore how language develops in the absence of the temporal part of these core language regions.

Greta Tuckute, a graduate student in the Fedorenko lab, is the first author of the Neuropsychologia study. Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

Their results appeared recently in the journal Neuropsychologia. They found, for the first time, that temporal language regions appear to be critical for the emergence of frontal language regions in the same hemisphere — meaning, without a left temporal lobe, EG’s intact frontal lobe did not develop a capacity for language.

They also reveal much more: EG’s language system resides happily in her right hemisphere. “Our findings provide both visual and statistical proof of the brain’s remarkable plasticity, its ability to reorganize, in the face of extensive early damage,” says Greta Tuckute, a graduate student in the Fedorenko lab and first author of the paper.

In an introduction to the study, EG herself puts the social implications of the findings starkly. “Please do not call my brain abnormal, that creeps me out,” she . “My brain is atypical. If not for accidentally finding these differences, no one would pick me out of a crowd as likely to have these, or any other differences that make me unique.”

How we process language

The frontal and temporal lobes are part of the cerebrum, the largest part of the brain. The cerebrum controls many functions, including the five senses, language, working memory, personality, movement, learning, and reasoning. It is divided into two hemispheres, the left and the right, by a deep longitudinal fissure. The two hemispheres communicate via a thick bundle of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum. Each hemisphere comprises four main lobes—frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital. Core parts of the language network reside in the frontal and temporal lobes.

Core parts of the language network (shown in teal) reside in the left frontal and temporal lobes. Image: Ev Fedorenko

In most individuals, the language system develops in both the right and left hemispheres, with the left side dominant from an early age. The frontal lobe develops slower than the temporal lobe. Together, the interconnected frontal and temporal language areas enable us to understand and produce words, phrases, and sentences.

How, then, did EG, with no left temporal lobe, come to speak, comprehend, and remember verbal information (even a foreign language!) with such proficiency?

Simply put, the right hemisphere took over: “EG has a completely well-functioning neurotypical-like language system in her right hemisphere,” says Tuckute. “It is incredible that a person can use a single hemisphere—and the right hemisphere at that, which in most people is not the dominant hemisphere where language is processed—and be perfectly fine.”

Journey into EG’s brain

In the study, the researchers conducted two scans of EG’s brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), one in 2016 and one in 2019, and had her complete a range of behaviorial tests. fMRI measures the level of blood oxygenation across the brain and can be used to make inferences about where neural activity is taking place. The researchers also scanned the brains of 151 “neurotypical” people. The large number of participants, combined with robust task paradigms and rigorous statistical analyses made it possible to draw conclusions from a single case such as EG.

Magnetic resonance image of EG’s brain showing missing left temporal lobe. Image: Fedorenko Lab

Fedorenko is a staunch advocate of the single case study approach—common in medicine but not currently in neuroscience. “Unusual brains—and unusual individuals more broadly—can provide critical insights into brain organization and function that we simply cannot gain by looking at more typical brains.” Studying individual brains with fMRI, however, requires paradigms that work robustly at the single-brain level. This is not true of most paradigms used in the field, which require averaging many brains together to obtain an effect. Developing individual-level fMRI paradigms for language research has been the focus of Fedorenko’s early work, although the main reason for doing so had nothing to do with studying atypical brains: individual-level analyses are simply better—they are more sensitive and their results are more interpretable and meaningful.

“Looking at high-quality data in an individual participant versus looking at a group-level map is akin to using a high-precision microscope versus looking with a naked myopic eye, when all you see is a blur,” she wrote in an article published in Current Opinion in Behaviorial Sciences in 2021. Having developed and validated such paradigms, though, is now allowing Fedorenko and her group to probe interesting brains.

While in the scanner, each participant performed a task that Fedorenko began developing more than a decade ago. They were presented with a series of words that form real, meaningful sentences, and with a series of “nonwords”—strings of letters that are pronounceable but without meaning. In typical brains, language areas respond more strongly when participants read sentences compared to when they read nonword sequences.

Similarly, in response to the real sentences, the language regions in EG’s right frontal and temporal lobes lit up—they were bursting with activity—while the left frontal lobe regions remained silent. In the neurotypical participants, the language regions in both the left and right frontal and temporal lobes lit up, with the left areas outshining the right.

fMRI showing EG’s language activation on the brain surface. The right frontal lobe shows robust activations, while the left frontal lobe does not have any language responsive areas. Image: Fedorenko lab

“EG showed a very strong response in the right temporal and frontal regions that process language,” says Tuckute. “And if you look at the controls, whose language dominant hemisphere is in the left, EG’s response in her right hemisphere was similar—or even higher—compared to theirs, just on the opposite side.”

Leaving no stone unturned, the researchers next asked whether the lack of language responses in EG’s left frontal lobe might be due to a general lack of response to cognitive tasks rather than just to language. So they conducted a non-language, working-memory task: they had EG and the neurotypical participants perform arithmetic addition problems while in the scanner. In typical brains, this task elicits responses in frontal and parietal areas in both hemisphers.

Not only did regions of EG’s right frontal lobe light up in response to the task, those in her left frontal lobe did, too. “Both EG’s language-dominant (right) hemisphere, and her non-language-dominant (left) hemisphere showed robust responses to this working-memory task ,” says Tuckute. “So, yes, there’s definitely cognitive processing going on there. This selective lack of language responses in EG’s left frontal lobe led us to conclude that, for language, you need the temporal language region to ‘wire up’ the frontal language region.”

Next steps

In science, the answer to one question opens the door to untold more. “In EG, language took over a large chunk of the right frontal and temporal lobes,” says Fedorenko. “So what happens to the functions that in neurotypical individuals generally live in the right hemisphere?”

Many of those, she says, are social functions. The team has already tested EG on social tasks and is currently exploring how those social functions cohabit with the language ones in her right hemisphere. How can they all fit? Do some of the social functions have to migrate to other parts of the brain? They are also working with EG’s family: they have now scanned EG’s three siblings (one of whom is missing most of her right temporal lobe; the other two are neurotypical) and her father (also neurotypical).

The “Interesting Brains Project” website details current projects, findings, and ways to participate.

The project has now grown to include many other individuals with interesting brains, who contacted Fedorenko after some of this work was covered by news outlets. A website for this project can be found here. The project promises to provide unique insights into how our plastic brains reorganize and adapt to various circumstances.


Season’s Greetings from the McGovern Institute

This year’s holiday video (shown above) was inspired by Ev Fedorenko’s July 2022 Nature Neuroscience paper, which found similar patterns of brain activation and language selectivity across speakers of 45 different languages.

Universal language network

Ev Fedorenko uses the widely translated book “Alice in Wonderland” to test brain responses to different languages. Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

Over several decades, neuroscientists have created a well-defined map of the brain’s “language network,” or the regions of the brain that are specialized for processing language. Found primarily in the left hemisphere, this network includes regions within Broca’s area, as well as in other parts of the frontal and temporal lobes. Although roughly 7,000 languages are currently spoken and signed across the globe, the vast majority of those mapping studies have been done in English speakers as they listened to or read English texts.

To truly understand the cognitive and neural mechanisms that allow us to learn and process such diverse languages, Fedorenko and her team scanned the brains of speakers of 45 different languages while they listened to Alice in Wonderland in their native language. The results show that the speakers’ language networks appear to be essentially the same as those of native English speakers — which suggests that the location and key properties of the language network appear to be universal.

The many languages of McGovern

English may be the primary language used by McGovern researchers, but more than 35 other languages are spoken by scientists and engineers at the McGovern Institute. Our holiday video features 30 of these researchers saying Happy New Year in their native (or learned) language. Below is the complete list of languages included in our video. Expand each accordion to learn more about the speaker of that particular language and the meaning behind their new year’s greeting.