UTHealth researcher receives NIH funding to study how the brain deciphers words

December 09, 2016

HOUSTON - (Dec. 8, 2016) - Unlocking the mystery of how the brain processes the written word into language is the focus of a $3 million federal grant awarded to Nitin Tandon, M.D., professor of neurosurgery at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) and a member of Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute.

Tandon will use intracranial electroencephalogram (icEEG) - devised to detect abnormalities related to electrical activity of the brain in patients with epilepsy - to record the sequence from visual perception of words to selection to speaking those words.

"Humans didn't have a written language until about 10,000 B.C.," Tandon said about the evolution of reading. "Evolutionarily, nature took a brain that was not made to read or write and imprinted symbolic representation upon it. For this it used the existing architecture of the brain - the same place where you recognize a familiar face or that a twig is not a snake -- to build reading and writing. The question is how that region interacts with the rest of our language system, which is a good deal older."

The study, done in collaboration with the Texas Comprehensive Epilepsy Program and Johns Hopkins Medical Center, will enroll a total of 80 patients who are already undergoing icEEG for seizures. It is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (RFA-NS-16-008), part of the National Institutes of Health.

"This research is important because it gives us unique insight into the mechanisms of reading, which is a highly evolved human behavior. If we know how the system normally works, we can evaluate patients with dyslexia to understand how their brain works differently and how we might find better therapies for them," Tandon said. "In a more futuristic view, after a person has suffered a stroke or brain injury, these recordings might help us develop a prosthetic device that could decode what's happening in the brain and use it to interface with a computer to allow people to compensate for the deficit they have."
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University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

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