But research funded by the Wellcome Trust and the European Commission suggests that Higgins’s ability to differentiate expertly between similar sounds may have stemmed from birth.
Neuroscientists at UCL (University College London) have shown that the brain structures of expert phoneticians differ from those of the general public. However, although some of these changes can be explained by the brain’s ‘plasticity’ – the ability of experience and training to change the brain’s shape – the researchers believe that some of the differences are likely to have been present since birth.
“We know that experts, for example professional golfers or London taxi drivers, have different brain structures or patterns of brain activity from ordinary members of the public,” says Professor Narly Golestani, now based at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. “It’s often hard to tell whether these differences have been shaped entirely by experience or whether a person’s brain structure may influence the profession that they enter.”
Professor Golestani and colleagues, whose work includes understanding how the brain recognises and processes sound, investigated brain structure in expert phoneticians – individuals who are specialised in the study of phonetics and need to able to distinguish accurately between very similar speech sounds and subtle regional accents. Unlike other expertise, such as musical ability, phoneticians gain their experience and training in adulthood, allowing the researchers to test the effects on brain structure of extensive and naturalistic training in adults.
Using magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers compared the brain structures of 17 phoneticians against 16 healthy control volunteers and showed clear differences in the structure of key areas of the brain. Their results are published in the ‘Journal of Neuroscience’.
Professor Sophie Scott, a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow, explains: “We found a brain area which correlates in size with numbers of years of analysing the sounds of speech. Interestingly, we also find that the shape of the left auditory cortex – something which is established in the womb – also differs between expert phoneticians and lay controls, but doesn’t correlate with years of practice.
“This finding may suggest a predisposition in some people to be interested in sound, and may help them decide to choose this kind of career. Perhaps this is why Henry Higgins became a professor of phonetics rather than, say, a professor of physics.”
The researchers found that an area of the brain known as the left pars opercularis – part of the Broca’s area, a region of the brain involved in speech production but also in analysing and separating speech sounds – correlated with the amount of training in transcription that a phonetician had undergone. Phonetic transcription involves accurately identifying phonetic sounds and associating them with phonetic symbols.
They also found that the shape of an area known as the left transverse gyrus, which includes the left primary auditory cortex, differed in phoneticians and in the lay public, but its shape and size did not correlate with the amount of training a phonetician had undergone.
The left transverse gyrus in phoneticians tended to include a greater number of folds – and hence surface area – which, in turn, allows a greater capacity for establishing new and more complex patterns of brain connectivity. The folding of this brain region is thought to be established before birth, starting during the 31st week of gestation; there is no evidence that it can develop further folds during adulthood.
Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, says: “This intriguing study provides an insight into how language is processed in the brain and why some people may have more of a penchant towards languages. It goes beyond being a merely curious finding to one which may in time help us understand also why some people have phonological difficulties, such as people with developmental dyslexia.”
Image: This brain scan shows greater white matter density in areas of the brain that process sounds in phonetician’s brains compared with healthy control volunteers. Credit: N Golestani et al, J Neuroscience 2011.
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Notes for editors
Golestani N, Price CJ and Scott SK. Born with an ear for dialects? Structural plasticity in the ‘expert’ phonetician brain. J Neurosci 15 March 2011 [epub].
About the Wellcome Trust
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.
About UCL (University College London)
Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. UCL is among the world’s top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. Alumni include Marie Stopes, Jonathan Dimbleby, Lord Woolf, Alexander Graham Bell, and members of the band Coldplay. UCL currently has over 13,000 undergraduate and 9,000 postgraduate students. Its annual income is over £700 million.