International Doctorate for
Experimental Approaches to Language And Brain

Candidates are highly recommended to write a proposal that fits into one of the following research lines and are recommended to contact the relevant supervisors when developing proposals. Other projects may be developed but the potential supervisors at the partner universities MUST be contacted prior to application.
  • Discourse in Autism Spectrum Disorder
    Discourse plays an important role in sentence processing and in the interpretation of referring expressions (noun phrases, pronouns). When noun phrases are discourse-linked, complex sentences become easier to comprehend (Gibson, 1998). Moreover, processing is facilitated when pronouns lie close to the deictic centre, e.g. first versus third person (Haendler, Kliegl, Adani, 2015). Finally, it has been suggested that grammatical structure itself, e.g. island effects, is subject to discourse constraints (Ambridge & Goldberg, 2008). The proposed research project investigates the relationship between language and discourse in adults or children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and neurotypical individuals. This group provides an ideal testing ground for accounts of the language-discourse interface because they have fundamental discourse difficulties (Hale & Tager-Flusberg, 2005). Potential research questions are;

    (i) Do children with ASD benefit from discourse-linked NPs to the same extent as controls?

    (ii) Are they less sensitive to putative discourse constraints on grammaticality than controls?

    A variety of methodologies may be used ranging from eye-tracking (Haendler et al. 2015) to grammaticality judgments (Sorace & Keller, 2005) as well as sentence production.

    Supervising Partners:
    University of Potsdam: Prof. dr. Flavia Adani
    University of Groningen: Dr. Nick Riches
  • Question
  • Disentangling the cognitive processes involved in language and computer programming acquisition in normally developing children and children with autism spectrum disorder.
    Worldwide, schools have started to add computer programming classes to the curriculum of primary and secondary schools. This means more and more children are being exposed to programming education from an early age onwards. Interestingly, there is not much knowledge about what cognitive skills are involved in learning to code and to what degree these skills are related to other cognitive skills like spoken and written language ability (Pea & Kurland, 1984). In addition, we do not know whether programming is easier or harder for children with specific cognitive profiles. The first aim of this project is to clarify the link between spoken and written language skills and programming ability. The second aim is to study strength and weakness profiles of programming and language skills in students with an autism spectrum disorder.

    Supervising Partners:
    Macquarie University: Dr. Eva Marinus
    University of Groningen: Dr. Wim Tops
  • The phonology-morphology-syntax interface in typical and atypical language development
    Recent research suggests that phonological properties of the ambient language are learned rather early and have a crucial impact on the development of morphological and syntactic properties of the language. For instance, phonotactic and positional effects have been observed in children’s ability to detect inflectional endings and to produce inflected word forms, and metrical properties of a language seem to be related to the acquisition patterns for function words like determiners. Doctoral projects within this research program should track the perception, processing, and production of morphological information and its interactions with both phonology and syntax in children with different kinds of developmental disorders. Interesting populations to look at would include especially children with atypical language acquisition who suffer from a perceptual deficit (hearing impaired children) and children with atypical language development who do not suffer from a known perceptual deficit (children with specific language impairment or with a risk for specific language impairment).

    Supervising Partners:
    Macquarie University: Prof. dr. Katherine Demuth
    University of Potsdam: Prof. dr. Barbara Höhle
  • Eye-movements in developmental peripheral dyslexias

    In the last few decades, research on developmental dyslexias has primarily focused on deficits in phonological processing, considering phoneme awareness and phonological short-term memory as the main cause of reading difficulties (e.g., Snowling, 2000, Vellutino et al. 2004, for a review). However, there are children with reading impairments whose phonological processing is completely normal (e.g., Friedmann & Rahamim, 2007; Friedmann, Kerbel, Shvimer, 2010; Kohnen et al., 2012). Some of the behavioural features of these reading difficulties are thought to arise from deficits in peripheral components of the reading system: visual-orthographic processing. For example, it has been observed that children with so called Developmental Attentional Dyslexia move letters between words (e.g., reading part dark as “dart park”). Moreover children with so called Developmental Letter Position Dyslexia move letters within words (e.g., reading slime as “smile”).

    The main aim of the present project is to conduct a detailed investigation with English- and German-reading children who show deficits in visual-orthographic processing (e.g., Attentional Dyslexia and Letter Position Dyslexia) in order to understand how the associated reading errors arise. In addition to off-line reading tasks (measuring accuracy and speed), on-line processing will be investigated by monitoring eye movement, as this method provides a unique window into how impaired visual-orthographic processing unfolds during reading.

    Supervising partners:
    Macquarie University: Dr. Saskia Kohnen
    University of Potsdam: Dr. Nicole Stadie

  • Processing of Prosodic Information in Children with Developmental Dyslexia
    Recent research suggests that children with developmental dyslexia do not only have problems in acquiring written language but that they often have a history of a developmental disorder in spoken language and subtile deficits in speech processing, especially in the perception of frequency and amplitude modulation. Precursors of these deficits already show up in infants coming from families with a genetic risk for developmental dyslexia during the first months of life, for example in the processing of duration information. Some cross-linguistic research suggests that these perceptual deficits hinder the establishment of lexical phonological representations which in turn affects the acquisition of written language. The current project should extend the research on the nature of phonological representations in children with developmental dyslexia and in children at risk for developmental dyslexia by studying auditory word recognition in these children using eye-tracking and ERP techniques.

    Supervising partners
    University of Potsdam: Prof. dr. Barbara Höhle
    Maquarie University
  • The role of the graphemic buffer in developmental dysgraphias
    Childhood spelling difficulties (developmental dysgraphias) affect about 15% of the population and can persist into adulthood (e.g., Landerl & Moll, 2010; Maughan, Messer, Collishaw, Pickles, Snowling, Yule & Rutter, 2009). Much research on developmental dysgraphia has focussed on children’s difficulty to acquire phoneme-to-grapheme mappings (non-lexical spelling), a sight word vocabulary (lexical spelling) and morphological rules (Bourassa & Treiman, 2001; Egan & Tainturier, 2011; Joshi et al., 2008; Kemp, 2009; Moats, 2009). Almost neglected is the influence of impairments to the orthographic working memory (the graphemic buffer) (but see, Yachini & Friedmann, 2010). This project will investigate how to best assess graphemic buffer impairments in developmental dysgraphias in a regular and irregular orthography (Italian and English). It will also result in a description of how impairments of the graphemic buffer interact with impairments of other aspects of spelling in children with childhood dysgraphia.

    Supervising partners:
    Macquarie University: Dr. Saskia Kohnen & Prof. dr. Lyndsey Nickels
    Trento University: Prof. dr. Gabriele Miceli
    [with Prof Pierluigi Zoccolotti (Sapienza University Rome)]
  • Temporal basis and evolution of prosody in child speech
    Timing and temporal coordination in speech are assumed to be the phonetic bases for linguistic prosody (syllables and feet), but timing in reference to syllable and foot structure remain largely terra incognita in the phonetics literature. Using methods for registering the timing of speech events, we study the relation between prosodic phonological organization (in terms of syllables and feet) and phonetic, measurable indices of that organization. We then track the evolution of this relation in children’s developing speech. The sequencing and specifically the timing of speech events is central to speech but also to reading. In children characterized as ‘impaired’ readers, there is a close link between coordination and reading ability (Carello et al. 2002). Prosodic units such as syllables are furthermore implicated in the error patterns of patients with apraxia of speech and other impairments (Ziegler 2008, Wolff 2002). A key aim of the project is to develop tools with which normal language development as well as impairment or developmental delay in child populations can be detected and rigorously evaluated.  

    Supervising Partners:
    University of Potsdam: Prof. dr. Adamantios Gafos
    University of Groningen

  • The relationship between executive functions and language in children/young adults with developmental disorders (dyslexia, specific language disorder, autism spectrum disorder)

    In recent research on developmental disorders, there is a great interest for executive functions. Executive functioning is an important construct that refers to aspects of the conscious control of thought and action (Zelazo & Müller, 2002). It involves processes needed for targeted, efficient and socially adapted behaviour such as inhibition, planning, self-regulation, flexibility, working memory and many more. An unambiguous definition however still lacks. Pennington and Ozonoff (2006) addressed the question what EF deficits mean for the understanding of underlying cognitive mechanism in developmental disorders.
    A common EF deficit seems to be the binding factor between these developmental disorders, explaining the overlap in symptoms. More recently there has been a shift of perspective: developmental disorders are regarded as disorders of multiple underlying impairments, suggesting that the different symptoms may reflect impairments in separate functional systems (Bishop & Frazier Norbury, 2014). This point of view seems more plausible than ‘single-factor’ models, taking into account the wide variation in symptomatology. Instead of asking whether executive deficits can explain the entirety of symptoms, we need to consider which specific symptoms are linked with specific cognitive functions.
    EF also influence language performance. (Phonological) working memory, in particular, is hypothesized to be a significant contributor to language processing, reading comprehension, and some types of language formulation (Baddeley, 1986). The aim of this research project is to investigate the relationship between different (online and offline) executive function measurements and a broad range of linguistic functions (comprising language production and comprehension skills, fluency, naming, phonological skills) and literacy (word, pseudoword and text reading, word spelling, précis writing, etc.) in clinical groups of children and young adults with developmental disorders which are known to have impaired language and/or literacy skills, such as individuals with dyslexia, SLI and autism spectrum disorders.

    University of Groningen (home university): Dr. Wim Tops
    Macquarie University Sydney: Prof. dr. Anne Castles
    University of Potsdam: Prof. dr. Barbara Höhle

  • Characterizing Articulation in Fluent and Disordered Speech

    Apraxia of Speech (AoS) is a speech motor disorder originating from a left hemispheric stroke (Darley, 1968). There is still a lot of debate about the underlying disorder of AoS. Many symptoms present in apraxia of speech also occur in aphasia (which usually accompanies apraxia of speech) and dysarthria. This makes diagnosis and treatment complicated. Current work by an IDEALAB student using Electro Encephalography (EEG) is starting to disentangle the different language and speech processes affected in these populations, but EEG provides insights only into speech programming. We still have an incomplete understanding of language disorders characterized by disfluencies in speech production, in part because we lack detailed information about articulation in the speech of individuals with these disorders.

    The goal of this research is to examine patterns of articulation characterizing Apraxia of Speech, dysarthria, and aphasia, and to compare these with the speech of fluent populations. We make use of Electromagnetic Articulography (EMA) to track the movement and coordination of key speech articulators, to better understand the ways that these movements vary across different speech tasks and prosodic units. These data will have important implications for theories of phonological organization, syllable structure, and lexical representation, and will shed new light on motor control in speech planning.

    Two projects are open for IDEALAB PhD students interested in speech articulation. In the first project, differences in speech kinematics will be investigated using EMA, in subjects with AoS, different types of dysarthria, and aphasia. These data will further inform those obtained from EEG studies with respect to diagnosis, but will also provide indications for therapy. While some studies have been performed using EMA in subjects with dysarthria or AoS (cf. Van Lieshout et al 2009, Bartle-Meyer et al, 2009, 2010), a comparison of the kinematic processes in the three groups using the same materials has never been accomplished.

    In the second project, the kinematics of speech in progressive speech disorders will be investigated using EMA in a longitudinal study. Apraxia of speech (AoS) and dysarthria can be found in degenerative disorders, such as Primary Progressive Apraxia of Speech (Josephs et al., 2012), Parkinson's disease or Motor Neuron disease with progressive dysarthria. In this longitudinal project, we will investigate the effect of these progressive speech disorders on the articulation of the patients over time.

    Supervising Partners:
    University of Groningen: Dr Martijn Wieling & Dr Roel Jonkers
    Macquarie University: Dr Michael Proctor

  • Language deficits after awake surgery in LGG

    Patients with low grade gliomas in the eloquent areas of the brain who have undergone awake surgery often complain about mild linguistic disorders, such as word finding problems. These word finding problems are not easy to detect with standard aphasia tests like the BNT. Also, it is not yet clear where these mild deficits stem from: the tumor, brain surgery or even chemo and / or radiation therapy. The latter is not excluded: patients with malignant tumors in other body parts (e.g. lung cancer, breast cancer) that have been removed and who have undergone chemo and / or radiation therapy may show up with cognitive disorders, among which language impairments (see e.g. Phillips & Bernhard, 2003).
    The current project will investigate the cause of the linguistic deficits in patients in whom the tumor in the eloquent areas has successfully been removed. In order to disentangle the consequences of the cause (brain tumor), the influence of brain surgery and adjuvant therapy (chemo, radiation and pharmaceutical treatment), several subject groups can be included, for example:
    1) LGG in eloquent areas with awake surgery + adjuvant treatment
    2) LGG in eloquent areas with surgery + adjuvant treatment
    3) LGG in right hemisphere with surgery+ adjuvant treatment
    4) breast and / or lung cancer with surgery + adjuvant treatment
    5) patients without cancer with brain surgery (e.g. epilepsy; surgery for implantation of deep brain stimulator).

    A test battery for detecting mild linguistic disorders will be developed and the patients will be assessed before surgery and 2 weeks, 3 months and 6 months after surgery.

    University of Groningen: Prof dr. Roelien Bastiaanse, Dr. Djaina Satoer
    University of Trento: Prof. dr. Gabriele Miceli

  • Semantic decline of verbs and nouns in MCI and Alzheimer's disease
    There are conflicting findings on the extent to which nouns and verbs are represented and processed similarly or differently in the brain. Research in aphasia and dementia has shown that semantic subcategorization of verbs and nouns plays a crucial role in this discussion. Specific categories of verbs and nouns, for example, have been shown to be difficult or relatively spared in speakers with Alzheimer’s disease. Studies, however, mostly focus on synchronic data, making it impossible to study semantic decline of the different semantic categories.
    The current project will follow semantic decline longitudinally, leading to a better knowledge of the role of semantic subcategorization in impaired language processing. It will also help to determine its link with more general cognitive impairment, relating it to the concomitant cognitive decline subjects with AD suffer from. Another way to study semantic decline is by focussing on very early stages of semantic impairment, as are seen in participants with Mild Cognitive Impairment. Studies to specific problems with categories of verbs and nouns haven’t been done in MCI before. Also in this group longitudinal studies are foreseen.

    Supervising Institution:
    University of Groningen: Prof. dr. Roelien Bastiaanse / Dr. Roel Jonkers
    University of Trento: Prof. dr. Gabriele Miceli
  • The development of processing grammatical gender in children with and without developmental language disorders
    Not much is known about young children’s development of processing syntactic information in their speech input. In the current project the processing of grammatical gender information as a cue to predict the next upcoming noun will be studied across languages with different gender and case systems. Previous research using eye-tracking techniques has shown that Spanish learning 3-year-old children can make of use the determiner form (la vs. el) to restrict the potential upcoming noun (Lew-Williams & Fernald, 2007). The main questions to be followed in this project are: can the same developmental trajectory be observed in languages with a more complex gender system like German which has three gender categories instead of two, how does the existence of a case system that affects the determiner form impact the processing of gender information, do children with specific language impairment show the same or different processing effects. An experimental and cross-linguistic approach using eye-tracking as the main method and comparing languages with a more or less complex inventory of article forms (German, Italian, Dutch) is intended.
    Ref: Lew-Williams, C. & Fernald, A. (2007) Young children learning Spanish make rapid use of grammatical gender in spoken word recognition. Psychological Science, 18, 193-198.

    Supervising Partners:
    University of Potsdam: Prof. dr. Barbara Höhle
    University of Groningen
  • Does context facilitate paragraph level reading comprehension in people with aphasia?
    Many people with aphasia have difficulties reading and understanding paragraphs. Identifying factors that facilitate understanding could aid the development of therapeutic strategies.
    There are many factors that have been shown to influence reading comprehension of text in normal readers. Many of these factors involve the use of context. Context can be given within the text e.g. redundant or repetitive material or in information accompanying the text e.g. a title or picture. There is also general context in the form of general knowledge about a topic.
    This project aims to examine the impact of context on the reading comprehension of people with aphasia. The project will use an existing assessment to characterise peoples’ reading comprehension difficulties at single word, sentence and paragraph levels. Questions to be addressed could include: Is it easier to understand passages where main ideas are repeated? Is it easier to understand passages in the presence of a simple title? Is it easier to understand passages when they are accompanied by pictures? To what extent can people use background knowledge to support their text comprehension?

    Supervising Partners:
    Newcastle University: Dr. Julie Morris & Dr. Janet Webster
  • Text level reading: the relationship between propositions, key words and gist.
    Many people with aphasia have difficulties reading and understanding paragraphs. Clinically, one of the strategies used to aid understanding is the identification of key words and using these to extract the gist.
    Models of normal text comprehension (e.g. Kintsch, 1988) are based on the breakdown of text into its component propositions, with subsequent integration of the meaning of those propositions with general background knowledge. It is not clear how this detailed breakdown into propositions relates to the extraction of key words or gist.
    This project aims to examine the impact of the type of proposition and propositional density on the reading comprehension of people with aphasia. It will also consider how propositions relate to normal readers’ identification of key words, identification of main ideas and production of ‘gist’.

    Supervising Partners:
    Newcastle University: Dr. Julie Morris & Dr. Janet Webster
  • Auditory Comprehension in aphasia: Investigating the everyday
    Auditory comprehension in aphasia is a neglected research area. Research in the area has focused on comprehension of words or sentences. We know little about the relationship of single word, sentence and paragraph comprehension and particularly of what influences more everyday comprehension. Increasing our knowledge base in this area has potential impact on therapy. This project aims to examine the relationship between comprehension at the word, sentence and paragraph level. In addition, more everyday comprehension will be considered. This could include how best to assess everyday (so called functional comprehension), influence of environment, influence of context. It will build on current work at Newcastle considering auditory and reading comprehension.

    Supervising Partners:
    Newcastle University: Dr. Julie Morris & Dr. Janet Webster