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January 23, 2006

Sign of the Times

From: SDSUniverse, CA - Jan 23, 2006

SDSU Opens Cutting-Edge Lab for Study of Signed Languages

San Diego State University now has something in common with movies like "King Kong" and "Lord of the Rings" — the university is using similar 3-D computer motion tracking technology that brought characters like Gollum and Kong to life to study how the human mind processes signed languages.

The new Laboratory for Language and Cognitive Neuroscience is taking the most comprehensive approach to researching signed languages in the country. Led by Director Karen Emmorey, a professor in SDSU's School of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences in the College of Health and Human Services, the lab is already funded by four multiple-year grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation totaling more than $4.5 million.

"Our research focuses on signed languages to help us understand the universal nature of human language," Emmorey said. "Signed languages are understudied, but they are very important to explore to ensure we truly understand the relation between language and other cognitive systems, and the neural systems that underlie language and cognition."

The lab studies languages, and the deaf and hearing people who use them, to answer the following questions:

• What is universal about human language?

• How are signing and speaking similar?

• Does signing enhance spatial skills?

• Is the deaf signing brain different from the hearing speaking brain?

• How does the brain recognize the difference between gesture and sign language?

• What is the nature of the bimodal bilingual brain that speaks and signs?

The laboratory uses several novel methods to study how the brain processes language, including 3-D computer imaging technology using an Optotrak machine, brain imaging via functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and a head-mounted eye tracking system for measuring and recording eye movements during sign perception and production. Additional lab facilities include digital editing suites and a film studio that is used to create sign language stimuli and movies.

"Our researchers are a unique aspect of our lab," said Emmorey, who prior to coming to SDSU was a senior staff scientist and the Associate Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla. "Many of our researchers are members of the deaf community and everyone in our lab is fluent in American Sign Language. We also provide an accessible research training ground for deaf SDSU and UCSD students."

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