Language is a uniquely human ability, one that has fascinated scientists and philosophers for centuries. We learn languages from the people around us, use those languages to convey our thoughts; and languages form the basis of societies and cultures. But it has been challenging to understand the neural basis of language since it can’t be modeled in animals. Fortunately, new imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance image (fMRI) are helping scientists to study how the brain processes language and what goes wrong in speech and language disorders such as stuttering and some forms of autism.
Songbirds are another popular tool for language studies because, just like humans, they learn to communicate with their voices. What’s more, this learning occurs during a critical period, early in life, just as it does in infants. By studying how songbirds process sound and how they learn to sing, scientists aim to better understand how humans communicate. Language may also hold the key to human brain evolution (See "Evolution"). Indeed, scientists are screening the genomes of modern and ancient humans, as well as chimpanzees, to answer the question: What is so special about our genetic make-up that allows us to use language?
The winners of the 2014 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience – Brenda Milner, John O’Keefe and Marcus E. Raichle – discuss what led them to study memory and cognition and the challenges they faced in getting their discoveries about the brain accepted.
Three geneticists – James Sikela of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, James Noonan of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale, and Daniel Geschwind of UCLA – discuss how their field is revolutionizing the study of human brain evolution.
For most of us, a declining memory is a normal consequence of growing old. But why? What’s happening in the brain that causes age-related memory decline, and is there anything we can do to slow this decline?
How does the brain gather information from the outside world and use it to guide behavior? Three neuroscientists who have spent much of their research careers trying to answer that question were awarded the 2012 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience.
Recent research is beginning to answer these fundamental questions by exploring the plasticity of the adult brain—its ability to readily be shaped by experience. Contrary to the common assumption that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, there is increasingly strong evidence that the adult human brain is remarkably malleable and capable of new feats even in the last decades of life.
Susan G. Amara, President of the Society for Neuroscience, responds in-depth to questions about Brainfacts.org, the Society's anticipated new public website about brain research, and how SfN’s own efforts at outreach have evolved since its inception.
Armed with new imaging methods such as two-photon microscopy, Tobias Bonhoeffer, director of the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsreid, Germany, is a leading researcher on how the brain adapts to its environment.