A group of researchers from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom has completed a study that offers new insights into the evolutionary origins of language in the brain. In the process, they discovered that the ability to recognize the basic structure of language is not unique to the human brain. The group studied brain activity in humans and monkeys and found common cerebral activities associated with cognitive functions relevant to language abilities.
Under the leadership of Professor Chris Petkov and Dr. Ben Wilson, the study is published in the journal Nature Communications. This new study claims to have pinpointed the evolutionary roots of the ability to use languages and the brain functions that enable the evaluation of organization in sequences of sounds.
How the Study Was Conducted
The study used human and macaque monkey subjects whose brain activities were observed over a long period of time as they developed the ability to communicate. To properly understand the inherent predisposition of the human brain to developing and using language, (human) infants and monkeys were used in the study. They were exposed to an artificial language to avoid biases attributable to human interaction. The goal was to determine how the brains of monkeys and humans evaluate the successions of sounds used in language.
The study subjects were initially allowed to hear the correct sequence in the succession of sounds of a made-up language. After establishing the correct ordering of sounds, the infants and monkeys were then made to listen to new successions that were either correct or were not in accordance to the established rules of the artificial language they were made to listen to. Their brain activities were then scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
What the Research Revealed
The study revealed that humans and monkeys have the same portion of the brain that responded to the order of sounds that the study subjects learned to expect. This portion is the ventral, frontal and opercular cortex. Seeing the commonality, the researchers believe that this region is the evolutionary root of language in the brain. This region is observed to be responsible for monitoring the organization of the sounds used in language.
Significance of the Study
The study offers a vital new piece of information useful in understanding the mechanisms of how humans learn and lose the ability to use language. It can provide helpful hints in the development of treatments or solutions to health conditions such as aphasia that results from dementia or from stroke. Professor Petkov believes that the results from the study they conducted can help provide answers to the questions on the mechanisms by which humans understand and use language and, inversely, how humans lose language subsequent to a health condition or injury.
Moreover, the knowledge derived from the research now opens the possibility of studying language and related issues using animal models using state-of-the-art neuroscientific technologies. Monkeys may soon be used to do longer and more intensive studies on language-related problems in humans.
The researchers have already collaborated with neurologists at the University of Cambridge and the University of Reading to conduct further studies on the functioning of the cerebral region associated with language learning to explore in greater detail its contribution to language defects in people who develop aphasia. They seek to develop better methods to diagnose and prognosticate language impairment.
This development does not mean that their efforts in teaching monkeys how to speak or in translating “monkey-speak” to human language. The core idea here is opening up the possibility of using monkeys in conducting studies and experiments to explore and develop solutions for language impairment in humans. It’s more of a medical significance, at least as of now and in the foreseeable future.