Principal Supervisor: Dr Hyojin Park
Secondary Supervisor(s): Dr. Katrien Segaert (School of Psychology), Dr. Jianbo Jiao (School of Computer Science)
University of Registration: University of Birmingham
BBSRC Research Themes: Integrated Understanding of Health (Ageing)
Imagine sitting in a café with various background noises. Your conversation partner's speech can range from clear to mumbled, and their messages may be either simple or very complex. This illustrates that each situation demands different levels of attention to aid comprehension. Effective communication skills are a crucial ability, and, interestingly, one that changes as we grow older. The conventional notion of aging is that cognitive abilities worsen with time. However, a growing body of research challenges this notion by highlighting how older adults manage to navigate the challenges of aging through adaptive strategies.
This proposal aims to investigate and elucidate the neural mechanisms through which young and older adults employ different strategies to enhance their daily communication skills and maintain their competence in this area. We will employ functional and structural neuroimaging techniques, specifically Optically Pumped Magnetometers (OPM-MEG), to measure brain areas responsible for controlling cognitive strategies underlying communication skills in young and older adults. OPM-MEG offers a high-temporal-resolution view of brain activity, enabling us to observe real-time responses to different communication challenges. Furthermore, OPM-MEG allows us to detect subtle cognitive strategies that influence behaviour, such as the activation of brain regions such as frontal areas, involved in cognitive effort.
Our first aim is to test the hypothesis that older adults rely more on semantic information than young adults since older adults’ knowledge about words and the world is more extensive, yet their ability to understand complex syntax declines. We will manipulate the relative complexity of semantic and syntactic components in natural auditory speech perception tasks. During these tasks, participants will be exposed to natural auditory speech, while their brain activity will be recorded using OPM-MEG.
The second aim is to uncover how speech comprehension is supported by cues such as intonation and rhythms of speech as well as by contextual cues such as the speaker’s lip movement. We will conduct natural audiovisual communication tasks, manipulating the rhythmic fluctuation of speech (natural rhythm versus flat speech) and utilising lip speakers and non-lip speakers during OPM-MEG recordings.
Our third aim focuses on unravelling the neural changes related to attentional efforts in communication competence. We suggest that comprehending speech becomes more challenging when there are interferences in the environment, particularly for older adults. By conducting natural auditory communication tasks and manipulating factors such as noisy environments (acoustic interference) and multi-speaker environments (semantic interference), we aim to understand the neural cognitive strategy mechanisms supporting attentional effort using OPM-MEG.
In summary, our comprehensive research project addresses the neural underpinnings of optimizing cognitive strategies for communication in both young and older adults through interdisciplinary collaboration, such as cutting-edge neuroimaging techniques and Large Language Models (LLMs)-based natural processing algorithms. Our findings can pave the way for practical applications and benefits that extend beyond academia. Education systems can incorporate our insights to develop tailored communication programs, healthcare professionals can use our research to improve daily communication with older patients, and technology developers can optimize speech-related AI systems for older adults, ultimately enhancing their quality of life.
- Park, H., Gross, J., 2023. Get the gist of the story: Neural map of topic keywords in multi-speaker environment. Elife 12.
- Park, H., Kayser, C., Thut, G., Gross, J., 2016. Lip movements entrain the observers' low-frequency brain oscillations to facilitate speech intelligibility. Elife 5:e14521.
- Park, H., Ince, R.A., Schyns, P.G., Thut, G., Gross, J., 2015. Frontal top-down signals increase coupling of auditory low-frequency oscillations to continuous speech in human listeners. Curr Biol 25, 1649-1653.
- Poulisse, C., Wheeldon, L., Segaert, K., 2019. Evidence against preserved syntactic comprehension in healthy aging. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 45, 2290-2308.
- Cognitive neuroscientific paradigms
- Optically Pumped Magnetometers (OPM-MEG)
- Magneto resonance imaging (MRI)
- Signal-processing and statistical assessment using Python (main library: MNE-Python)
- Machine learning/Deep-learning algorithms/Large Language Models (LLMs)/Natural Language Processing (NLP)