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Laura-Ann Petitto, Ph.D., science director and co-principal investigator of Gallaudet University’s Visual Language and Visual Learning Center (VL2), presented two important research studies during poster sessions at the Society of Neuroscience annual conference in Washington, D.C., November 12-16.

The Brains of Men and Women

The first of Petitto’s studies focused on gender differences in communication. The goal was to examine the cultural phenomenon, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” and determine if men and women communicate and think in fundamentally differently ways based on gender. Dr. Petitto teamed up with her husband, Kevin Dunbar, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland, and a team of graduate students, led by Kaja Jasinska of the University of Toronto, to take on this question.

Using a modern brain imaging system, called functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) the team measured changes in the brain’s blood flow in response to different types of conversational experiences, on 18 men and 18 women who were tested in groups of nine pairs of men, nine pairs of women and nine pairs of women and men. Participants viewed out-of-sequence video clips from an unfamiliar cartoon, and then conversed to place the events into a plausible story.

The study found that women’s and men’s overall conversational structures and brain activity while they reconstructed a story were highly similar. However, gender did matter! Women and men demonstrated different brain activity depending on whether men were conversing with men, as compared with men conversing with women. The same held true for women when talking to another woman as opposed to talking to a man.

Petitto and Dunbar concluded that these findings suggest the external social context of an interaction, whether it is with a member of the same sex or opposite sex, has a major impact on the way human brains are activated during a conversation. “In essence, ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ may not be just a pop culture statement after all!” said Petitto.

Babies’ Bilingual Brains

Petitto’s second research presentation focused on the language advantages of bilingual babies. Teaming up with graduate student Jasinska, Dr. Petitto used fNIRS to look inside a bilingual baby’s brain. fNIRS measures changes in the brain’s blood flow in response to different types of linguistic and non-linguistic stimuli. The team wondered whether being bilingual, as compared to monolingual, would change a baby’s brain, and, consequently, whether this would have any linguistic advantages for the bilingual baby.

Thirty-two babies (four groups, eight babies per group, consisting of younger and older bilinguals, and younger and older monolinguals) listened to three types of stimuli in quasi random sequences while undergoing fNIRS brain imaging.

The Petitto team found bilingual babies have a greater and longer sensitivity to language distinctions that make up the world’s languages, and show unique patterns of brain activation for language, as compared to monolingual babies. Their findings reveal that early exposure to two languages changes the human brain in ways that afford linguistic advantages to young bilingual children.

Petitto noted, “Bilingual brains provide a window into the full extent that our brain’s language processing tissue could potentially achieve.” Bilingual exposure may provide children with a linguistic ‘perceptual wedge’ that holds open longer their capacity to process a fuller range of the world’s language structure. “What is clear is that early life bilingual experience can change the brain in ways that provide powerful linguistic advantages to children, which has important implications for education,” concluded Petitto.

Information in this press release is based upon work supported by the National Institutes of Health, Petitto (P.I.)’s R21HD05055802 and L.A. Petitto (P.I.)’s NIH R0 Grant (NIHR01HD04582203). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health.

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