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Pioneering study maps attention, memory and language links in the human brain

A University of Arizona scientist who has specialized in studying how fireflies and other creatures communicate has won a million-dollar grant to conduct a pioneering 5-year study on the roles that attention and memory play when the human brain hears and processes spoken language.

"This is the chance to study the ultimate form of animal communication -- language," said Thomas A. Christensen of UA's department of speech, language and hearing sciences (SLHS). "Humans have evolved a very sophisticated symbolic form of communication. Language affects how we think, what we believe, how we interact with each other. I'd even go so far as to say that our future as a species depends on understanding how we communicate. But very little is known about what's going on in the brain when we're having a simple conversation."

Until recently, Christensen was a research scientist with the Arizona Research Laboratories' Division of Neurobiology, studying olfactory communication (the sense of smell) in insects. His research is grounded in the areas of learning and memory, systems physiology and animal communication. Encouraged by Elena Plante, head of the SLHS department, he applied for a $1 million career development award from the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The grant was awarded in April.

The grant will take his career -- and biomedical science -- in new directions. Christensen will use UA's state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) facilities to map the areas and networks within the brain linked to language, attention and memory. The UA's advanced MRI is a non-invasive imaging tool that is sensitive enough to show exactly what parts of the brain are involved when a person listens to another human voice.

"What you read in the text books is that if you're right handed, then language is localized to the left hemisphere of your brain," Christensen said. "I found out right away -- that's just no
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Contact: Lori Stiles
lstiles@u.arizona.edu
520-626-4402
University of Arizona
15-May-2007


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