Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Neurobiology of Language Conference 2011 -- Abstract submission open

We’re happy to announce that abstract submission for the Neurobiology of Language Conference 2011 is now open. Submit your abstract here:

We apologize again for the delay, and remind you that submission now closes on June 15th.

If you haven’t yet done so, please take the opportunity to register as a reviewer ( to help ensure the conference maintains its high quality standard.

We look forward to your contribution to NLC 2011!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Neurobiology of Language Conference (NLC) venue: Annapolis, Maryland

We’re proud to announce that the Neurobiology of Language Conference 2011 will be held on November 10th and 11th at the Westin Annapolis.

One of the newest additions to the Maryland state capital, The Westin Annapolis hotel is the centerpiece of a European inspired mixed-use community that ripples with energy. The refreshing hotel design is distinguished and original, featuring state-of-the-art technology in a contemporary and smart setting. On November 10th and 11th the hotel will be dedicated to hosting NLC, making for an intimate setting for our meeting. We have secured a special room rate of $139 for single or double occupancy (twin room sharing possible), available during the conference (Nov 9th-11th) and also three days pre- and post meeting. A special reservation link will be provided on our website soon.

The Westin is situated just a pleasant 15 minute walk from Annapolis’ harbor and historic city center. Annapolis is the state capital of Maryland. It has a very well preserved charming colonial center and harbor, and is the prime sailing destination in the U.S. thanks to the presence of the U.S. Naval Academy and its location on the Chesapeake bay. The main drags in the city center are lined with many pleasant restaurants and cafés, all within easy walking distance from the hotel – though a complimentary shuttle is also provided for those who prefer speed.

Annapolis is also within easy reach from Washington D.C. and Baltimore. Transportation from airports in the vicinity and from Washington city center to and from the hotel on arrival and departure will be provided.

We hope to welcome you at NLC 2011!

p.s., rumor has it that the debates this year will be Sophie Scott vs. David Poeppel and Friedemann Pulvermuller vs. Alfonso Caramazza. You won't want to miss it!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

More discussion of Brocas' area and sentence comprehension

A couple weeks ago Andrea Moro emailed me in connection with the recent critical review of the relation between Broca's area and sentence comprehension published by Corianne Rogalsky and myself. She pointed out a few highly relevant papers that we had unfortunately neglected in our review. An interesting email exchange ensued involving myself, Andrea, and Cornelius Weiller. I'm publishing this exchange with everyone's permission for two reasons. One is point out this important body of work that we did not address (it's worth a serious look) and the other is just because I thought the discussion presented some important issues that the broader language neuroscience community would be interested in and might like to comment on.

Here are the papers Andrea pointed out to us:

Tettamanti M, Rotondi I, Perani D, Scotti G, Fazio F, Cappa SF, Moro A. Syntax without language: neurobiological evidence for cross-domain syntactic computations. Cortex. 2009 Jul-Aug;45(7):825-38.

Tettamanti M, Alkadhi H, Moro A, Perani D, Kollias S, Weniger D. Neural correlates for the acquisition of natural language syntax. Neuroimage. 2002 Oct;17(2):700-9.

Musso M, Moro A, Glauche V, Rijntjes M, Reichenbach J, Büchel C, Weiller C. Broca's area and the language instinct. Nat Neurosci. 2003 Jul;6(7):774-81.

And here is the exchange, starting with my response to Andrea (there were multiple people copied on all these emails and they have been edited down minimally):

Greg wrote:
If broca's area is critically involved in hierarchical computations shouldn't patients with lesions there have significant trouble constructing sentences and making grammaticality judgements? As you know, focal lesions to broca's area do not cause broca's aphasia and rather causes only minimal if any language deficits.

Andrea wrote:
It seems to me that there is a misunderstanding here: "constructing sentences and making grammaticality judgments" as you say is surely a process that involves recursion but it is also undoubtedly true that there are cases where you can compute meanings with different strategies that do not involve recursion in the relevant sense. Take as a simple example a pure list of words like [lions, frogs, killed]: you can even think of them as in a Venn diagram. There surely is a way to derive a meaning without involving complex nested dependencies, so I would be more careful to jump to the conclusion you suggested. As for the lesions in Broca's areas (and let me just note that anyone in the recipient list of this message is surely much more entitled than me to comment on clinical aspects), it should be highlighted that the syndromic deficits that undergo the common name of "Broca's aphasia" are rather associated to much more extended lesions than those selectively involving BA 44-45. I'm sorry if these poor remarks on my side are not as extended as they should but they would obviously take more time than the one permitted in a simple e-mail.

Greg wrote:
Re: broca's area and broca's aphasia you are correct -- the syndrome is associated with a much broader lesion -- and that is precisely my point. When BA 44/45 -- the region implicated in hierarchical processing -- is selectively damaged, it has little effect on expressive or receptive language abilities. This is a problem for the claim I think, no?

Cornelius wrote:
Broca is a heterogenous area with different parcellations, each participating in various networks. When we acknowledge this, many questions could be answered.
I am attaching a paragraph from our recent paper in Brain & Language, which I thought Greg, you had reviewed. We will have a meeting in octobre here on processing along dorsal and ventral streams and Broca, hierarchy and recursivity will play a major role there.

A dual stream system has implications for the understanding of aphasic syndromes and recovery from aphasia. A bilateral, left-lateralised, parallel processing system with both a ventral and dorsal connection between temporal and frontal language zones gives ample options for compensatory processes after focal lesions resulting in a variety of active combinations of connections between cortical regions, which differ in a quantitative rather than an absolute manner. This assumption makes the complexity and fuzzy link of aphasic syndromes to focal lesions more understandable.

or as I put it in another version of this manuscript, which went through so many revisions I never had before:

In such a network model, the different cortical regions interact closely, and complex cognitive functions emerge from a context depending It is the selection of the connected regions that determines the function and the domain (see also (Damasio, 1989)(Vadia et al. , 1995)). This means that the different regions are not functioning independently of each other. Thus, the destruction of the interconnection may not result in a solitary failure (e.g.,repetition) but in a completely new phenomenological constellation, as the lesion of the tract affects the functioning of the two regions it connects and other regions, including the right hemisphere, may be operational after the lesion. These assumptions make the complexity and fuzzy link of aphasic syndromes to focal lesions more understandable.

Greg wrote:
Thanks for the interesting discussion. I don't disagree with anything that has been said, and these are important points: Broca's area is not unitary and it does not function in isolation but rather part of a complex network. However, I think this misses my point just a bit.

The fact is that damage to ALL of the various subdivisions has relatively mild effects on sentence-level processing and isn't typically associated with full-blown agrammatism, etc. So the fact that there are subdivisions is quite irrelevant.

While it is true that one might account for the lack of a profound deficit following such lesions by appealing generally to the broader network distribution, one still needs a theory of this network that can explain the findings. As far as I'm aware, there is no such theory. What I am seeing in the literature, is the claim that Broca's area (or BA 44 more specifically) is specialized for hierarchical processing. These activations seem to be highly focal suggesting that this region is a critical node. If it is critical, then damage to that region should produce a substantial change in the ability, yet it does not. My point is that this needs to be accounted for in our theories.

Part of our goal with the Broca's area review was to push the field to look at the whole constellation of data, including lesion work, which it has not done as well as it could.

Andrea wrote:
Not at all: your papers indeed raises a fundamental question, and the immediate debate that it raised witnesses its intrinsic value. The only aspect that worries me (but it's not at all related to this paper of yours) is that there is a lack of knowledge of the real hierarchical (and recursive) processes that syntax is build upon. For example, I have often seen authors confusing hiearchical with recursive. All recursive structures are hierarchical but not viceversa, witness syllable structures! Another typical confusion which many papers manifest is the one between recursion and nested dependencies (which in a sense are the only recursive structures that are relevant to evaluate syntactic dependencies). Needless to say, again, your own paper as well as the comments by Cornelius and Stefano have been at least for me the source of interesting thoughts.

Cornelius wrote:
Dear Greg,

You are basically requiring the integration of a holistic with a localist view, actually quite similar as Wernicke did. We promote two prominent ways to introduce hierarchy in networks leading to a “Concept of critical lesions“ (Weiller et al 2010):
the importance of a network node may be determined by the number of connections, active during a given task (e.g., IFG and MTG in sentence comprehension Saur et al 2010) within a network, the necessity of a given brain region may be determined by a basal and domain general function, e.g. analysis of hierarchical structure in Broca‘s area (e.g.; Musso et al 2003)

Still, predictions should be possible. If the critical, domain general regions for hierarchical structure processing in IFG and its appropriate connections are destroyed, agrammatism should be expected. However, the lesion will have an influence on the other players in the network, which are changed in their behaviour, resulting in a complete new phenomenology. We will also have to take into account the individual variability of anatomy and capacity for reorganisation. There are lesions of Broca‘s area without agrammatism. However, in the neuropsychological literature we are not aware of reports about isolated and complete lesions of all parts of Broca‘s area. Therefore, complementary functions may be taken over by the remaining parts of Broca‘s area and its connections (e.g.; within the dual loop model)

Weiller C, Saur D (2010) Recovery from Aphasia: lessons from imaging studies. In: Cramer S. and Nudo R. Brain Repair after Stroke. Cambridge University Press, New York

Saur D, Schelter B, Schnell S, Kratochvil D, Küpper H, Kellmeyer P, Kümmerer D, Klöppel S, Glauche V, Lange R, Mader W, Feess D, Timmer J, Weiller C (2010) Combining functional and anatomical connectivity revels brain networks for auditory comprehension. NeuroImage 49: 3187-3197.

Musso M, Moro A, Glauche V, Rijntjes M, Reichenbach J, Büchel C, Weiller C (2003) The role of Broca’s area and the language instinct. Nature Neuroscience 6:774-782

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Two new ways the mirror system claim is losing steam

Next week Giacomo Rizzolatti will give the Keynote Address at the 23rd annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science. According to the published abstract of the talk
... he will discuss the limits of the mirror mechanism in understanding other people. He will stress that the parieto-frontal mirror mechanism is, however, the only mechanism that allows a person to understand others’ actions from the inside, giving the observing individual a first-person grasp of other individuals’ motor goals and intentions.

As is clear from this quote and from recent publications by Rizzolatti and colleagues (e.g., Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2010), the Parma group is reining in their original claim that mirror neurons are the basis of action understanding, period. Now the mirror system has a much more restricted role in which the system allows understanding "from the inside". It's still not at all clear to me that this concept actually does any work, but even granting this point, it is worth noting that mirror neurons are only responsible for understanding actions that the observer knows how to perform. This is a highly restricted domain of function when considering the range of actions that one needs to understand yet has no experience executing. For example, I've never actually punched someone in the face, but I need to be able to recognize and understand such an action should I see it (and I believe that I can do so). Similarly, I've never coiled, but I can understand the intensions of a coiled snake. I've never reached for a holstered gun, but if saw such an action, I'd know what it meant. So what does understanding from the inside buy us? Not much in addition to what the regular action recognition system can already do, I would argue. Or put differently, not much that one couldn't pick up via pure sensory learning. (Side note relevant to this last point: motor knowledge and sensory learning are rather confounded. The more experience we have performing an action, the more opportunities we have to learn the sensory consequences.)

I think there is a more serious theoretical concern with the direction that mirror neuron theory is going, however. There is a shift away from the idea that mirror neurons code particular movements and toward the idea that they code motor goals or intentions. So mirror neurons don't do their magic via motor simulation, but by activating the goal or intention directly. This sounds like a profound insight, but in fact it pushes mirror neurons right out of the motor system and into the dreaded cognitive system that Rizzolatti and colleagues so wish to avoid: "Because the observers are aware of the outcome of their motor acts, they also understand what the others are doing without the necessity of an intermediate cognitive mediation" (another quote from the APS abstract).

Why is this the case? Because the high level goals or intentions, the things we are trying to understand, are inherently non-motoric. Now, movements can have goals, to bring my hand in proximity to a raisin, but being able to predict the trajectory of another's reaching movement is not the kind of understanding that Rizzolatti is talking about. He's arguing that mirror neurons code intentions, i.e., to possess the raisin, to eat the raisin. These are not motor goals. I can just as easily achieve this goal by grasping the raisin and putting it on my tongue, bending over and slurping it directly with my mouth, or asking someone to put it in my mouth for me. The goal is sensory (taste the raisin, satiate hunger) or cognitive (possess the raisin). The motor system is just a set of options for achieving the sensory/cognitive goal. Think of any action you like and you end up with same conclusion regarding the nature of the goal. The goal or intention is not the movement itself, it is the consequences of the movement. It's no wonder one doesn't need a motor system to understand the goals or intentions of actions: the goals and intentions are not motor!

The progression of mirror neuron theory was predictable from what happened to the motor theory of speech perception. It started out quite strong and therefore interesting, but when it was discovered that strict motor simulation did not disrupt speech perception, the "motor representations" that were used for speech perception became more abstract. It was no longer the actual motor gestures, but the intended motor gestures that were critical. This pushed the critical representations right out of the motor system and into the "cognitive" system, or as I and others would argue, straight back into the sensory system.

The mirror system is part of a larger system designed to for action control, not action understanding (Hickok & Hauser, 2010). As Rizzolatti has pointed out himself, the actions of others are clearly relevant to selecting and controlling one's own actions, just as the shape of objects are relevant to selecting and controlling actions. The idea that mirror neurons support action understanding is an interesting hypothesis, but one that has been thoroughly vetted. It's time to move on.

Hickok G, & Hauser M (2010). (Mis)understanding mirror neurons. Current biology : CB, 20 (14) PMID: 20656198

Rizzolatti, G., & Sinigaglia, C. (2010). The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: interpretations and misinterpretations Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11 (4), 264-274 DOI: 10.1038/nrn2805

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Post doc: Beauchamp lab, Houston Texas

The laboratory of Dr. Michael Beauchamp in Houston, Texas is hiring post-doctoral fellows for two federally funded post-doctoral positions. The first position will examine multisensory integration, especially auditory-visual integration during speech perception, using fMRI and TMS. The second position, in collaboration with Dr. Daniel Yoshor, will examine visual perception using fMRI and intracranial electrical recording and electrical stimulation in patients with implanted electrodes (“eCog”). Houston has a rich neuroimaging and neuroscience community, with Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine, and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston as partners in the Gulf Coast Consortia for quantitative biomedical sciences. Facilities include 6 research-dedicated 3 T scanners, a Blackrock Microsystems 128-channel recording system, TMS with Brainsight MRI-guided neuronavigation; MR-compatible TMS; NIRS; eye-tracking, and complete infrastructure for psychophysics and neuroimaging.
Candidates must have a PhD or MD, some experience with computer programming or Matlab, and extensive research experience in at least one of the following areas: neuroimaging, electrophysiology, psychophysics, sensory perception, cognitive or systems neuroscience, computational methods, signal processing, speech and language.

Please send CV, a brief statement of research interests, and names of references to For more information on the lab, please see Salary and rank will be commensurate with experience and NIH guidelines. Generous benefits, including support for travel to national and international meetings, are provided.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Revamping the scientific review process

The peer review system for journal publication works reasonably well, but is far from perfect. A major problem is the delay in review time, often caused by the difficulty of finding reviewers as well as reviewers failing to get their reviews in on time. I raised this issue previously on TB in the context of possibly paying reviewers for their service in order to encourage reviewers to accept assignments. There were some interesting responses to that idea.

Now, with four overdue reviews in my Human Brain Mapping editorial cue (7, 35, 38, and 66 days late), I'm thinking more about how to encourage reviewers to get their reviews in on time, besides pestering with annoying emails.

One commenter on my previous post had a good idea: link the timing of the review process for an author's manuscript submission to how long it takes him or her to provide reviews of other authors' manuscripts. Given that multiple journals subscribe to a few edited service website/systems (e.g., Scholar One, it may be possible to track a reviewer's on-time performance and then apply that information in the review of his or her submissions. For example, if a reviewer is, on average, 14 days late, the action editor would wait 14 days before starting the review process. There would, of course, be the normal delays in finding reviewers and getting reviews back, but late reviewers would have this extra fixed delay built in.

Do you think this would motivate you to get your reviews in on time?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

RA/Lab Manager Position -- Center for Language Science Penn State

The Center for Language Science ( invites applications for a Research Assistant/Lab Manager. The Center includes a highly interactive group of faculty and students whose interests include
bilingualism, language processing, language acquisition in children and adults, and language contact. The job includes preparing materials for experimentation for behavioral studies, eye tracking, and electrophysiological studies, programming experiments and testing research participants using each of these methods, and performing statistical analyses using a range of software applications. The individual will be responsible for organizing the laboratory schedule, recruiting research participants, developing appropriate databases, and managing the laboratory operation, including oversight of equipment maintenance and Website updating. Knowledge of E-prime, SPSS, and MATLAB is desirable, as is experience with eye tracking and event related potential methods, but training will be provided for all technical methods and also for the conduct of research with human participants. Typically requires an Associate's degree or higher (Bachelor's degree preferred) plus one year of related experience or an equivalent combination of education and experience. The successful candidate will be a recent college graduate who has had laboratory experience as an undergraduate, preferably with both behavioral and cognitive neuroscience methods. This is a fixed-term appointment funded for one year from date of hire with possibility of re-funding. To apply, send cover letter, CV, and arrange for three letters of recommendation to Amber Evans: Questions about the job can be sent to Judith Kroll: The review of applications will begin on May 15, 2011. The appointment is scheduled to begin on July 1, 2011. We encourage applications from individuals of diverse backgrounds. Penn State is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity and the diversity of its workforce.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Researcher position - Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language

Experienced Researcher position within the Marie Curie Initial Training Network Language, Cognition, and Gender
BCBL - Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language

The Marie Curie Initial Training Network on Language, Cognition, and Gender (ITN LCG - (, funded by the European Commission, comprises 15 Doctoral and 3 Postdoctoral projects at 10 Universities in 7 European countries. ITN LCG aims at investigating the interplay of language, cognition, and gender, for the first time from cross- language and cross-cultural perspectives.
The ITN LCG research programme is organized in four work packages (WP):

How does language shape the cognitive representations of gender (WP A)? How do features of European languages correspond with gender equality in European societies (WP B)? How does language contribute to social behaviour towards the sexes (WP C)? How can gender equality be promoted through strategies for gender-fair language use (WP D)?

Young fellows’ individual projects will be integrated into one comprehensive research and training network. They will be offered an innovative training in a unique combination of scientific methods that span from neuroimaging and electrophysiology over experimental techniques of cognitive and social psychology to linguistic methods of language analysis and scientific training strategies. The network is strongly based on the exchange and transfer of knowledge between academia and public and private organisations and will provide its fellows with network-wide training activities (1 workshop, 2 summer schools) and training-in-collaborations (working visits and secondments).

The Fellow will join one of the ITN-LCG partners, the BCBL (Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language – and will focus his/her research in WP A: How does language shape the cognitive representations of gender? This WP aims to determine the extent to which features of a language such as grammatical gender or gender-typical role names result in gender-related representations in speakers and listeners: a systematic comparison of languages concerning their features that lead to gender-related representations remains to be done. The languages studied in this WP (i.e., Basque, English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish) are particularly suited for this comparative analysis as they differ considerably in their grammatical gender systems.

The BCBL was created at the end of 2008 and, although relatively new, is considered one of the most prestigious laboratories in Spain in the field. The BCBL focuses on 5 main research lines, which include: (i) Language acquisition, representation, and processing, (ii) Multilingualism, (iii) Neurodegeneration, language and learning disorders, (iv) Formal studies of Basque, (v) Advanced methods for cognitive neuroscience. The BCBL investigates different areas of psycholinguistics, and offers an outstanding expertise in this field of research as well as the state-of-the-art necessary infrastructure. The scientific staff of the BCBL has ample experience in investigating language processing on various informational levels (phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics etc.). Members of the BCBL are highly skilled in a broad range of research methods, behavioral indices, eye-tracking, computational modeling as well as methods of cognitive neuroscience such as ERP, MEG and fMRI.
The fellow will enjoy full salary employment contract with all social securities (assurances). One year and a half contract plus six months extension (within the Spanish working and salaries conditions) will be offered and moreover, different surcharges as, mobility allowance, travel allowance and career exploratory allowance will be paid. The contract can start in spring 2011, at the earliest convenience of the chosen candidates, once the work permit has been obtained.

The eligibility conditions for recruitment are the following: Candidates can be nationals of any country other than the country of the host institute where they will carry out their project. Candidates must not have resided or carried out their main activity (work, studies, etc.) in the country of their host university for more than 12 months in the 3 years immediately prior to their recruitment (transmobility requirement). The applicants must have a University Degree and a PhD or at least 4 years of research experience. In all cases eligibility will be determined at the time of recruitment.
We are looking for highly motivated candidates with a strong background in Social Sciences, Linguistics, Psychology, or Neuroscience, an excellent command of English and a high motivation to learn the language studied at the employing institution. We expect a strong interest for and motivation to work on the interplay of language, cognition, and gender, the willingness to invest in interdisciplinary collaboration, and the ability to work in teams.

This application (in English) should include:
a letter of motivation detailing the candidate's particular scientific experience, knowledge, competencies and interests; a detailed curriculum vitae two academic letters of recommendation.
Closing date for applications 30th April 2011.
The candidates’ dossier should be send as an electronic file to the Project Manager of BCBL, Ms. Ana Fernández ( The application dossiers will be forwarded to the partner/s in charge of the respective individual research projects. Review of applications begins just after the closing date for applications.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Postdoctoral Opportunity: Brisbane, Australia.

Applications are invited for a post-doctoral position to work within a research programme led by Dr Greig de Zubicaray involving neuroimaging of language production and comprehension at the University of Queensland based on the funding scheme below. More information about the lab can be found at For enquiries prior to application, please contact Greig de Zubicaray by email:

Closing Date Schools/Institutes: 20 June 2011

The University of Queensland (UQ) invites applications for a number of Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in 2012, to be awarded to early career researchers of exceptional calibre wishing to conduct full-time research at the University in any of its disciplines.

In particular, the scheme aims to attract outstanding recent doctoral graduates to the University in areas of institutional research priority.

To be eligible, an applicant must not have had more than five years full-time professional research experience or equivalent part-time experience since the award of a PhD, as at 30 June 2011. The selection process will also consider the alignment of the proposed research with areas of existing research strength, or research areas that UQ Faculties/Institutes wish to develop as strategic priorities.

The period of appointment will be for three years and appointees are expected to commence in early 2012. The current salary range for the award is A$76,592.18 - $85,351.16 p.a., comprising a base salary of A$65,463.41 - $72,949.71, plus 17% superannuation. Each appointee will be entitled to maintenance funds of A$20,000 over the term of the Fellowship to support research costs. Appointees relocating from interstate or overseas will be entitled to reimbursement of travel and relocation costs.

The Guidelines, Conditions of Award and Application Form are available online at:

For further information, contact