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Science on the edge

A look into current McGill research on language, cognition, and music

On curiosity-driven research and funding 

Robert Zatorre is a professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery. He runs the Auditory Processing Laboratory at the Montreal Neurological Institute and is co-director of the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research. His lab focuses on cognitive processes involving the auditory system, particularly those relevant to music.

When he first started studying music, Zatorre fought to convince others that his work was valid. “The scientific community was not always completely enthusiastic,” he remembered. “They would reject it out of hand if you put ‘music’ in the title.  They would say it’s fluffy, it’s not hard science.”

Over the years, interest in the field has snowballed. Music casts a whole new light on memory, learning, motor performance, emotion – according to Zatorre, “almost all of the cognitive functions that we think of as representative of being human.”

Musicians have also become more open to a scientific take on their art. “It took a couple of decades,” he said, “but now I give a lot of lectures to musicians at musical festivals, in music departments, and so on.”

Despite burgeoning interest in the field, Zatorre, like many scientists doing basic research, still has battles to fight. When the Quebec government cuts $14.8 million from Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies (FRQNT) in the next fiscal year, Zatorre will be left in the lurch. He and his colleagues have a FRQNT-backed project, but with a 15 per cent reduction in funds, he’s not sure how he’s going to pay all his staff.

Meanwhile, health researchers across the province saw their proposed cuts altered from $10 million to $2 million after launching an ad campaign featuring a woman fighting ovarian cancer. Zatorre said,“They’re going out and finding a cure for cancer –  that’s an easy sell.”

Curiosity-driven research is harder to justify, making it much more difficult to receive funding. Zatorre recalled being asked point-blank: “Why aren’t you doing something important, like curing Alzheimer’s?” Basic research, he responded, provides a crucial foundation for applied research. “When we do an experiment that makes us understand the connection between the auditory [system] and the motor system, that research gives very good background for people using musical interventions for Parkinson’s. That’s a typical result of basic science.”

Zatorre noted that applied researchers are just as supportive of basic research. “It shouldn’t be a zero sum game,” he said. “Scientists are united on this. I understand that there are constraints, but you don’t get something for nothing, either.” The funding agencies, it seems, have yet to realize the importance of the synergy between applied and basic research.


On languages and learning 

Very few places flow seamlessly between languages the way Montreal does. With many growing up in bilingual homes, children in Montreal are naturally immersed in the city’s polyglot environment. Fred Genesee, a professor in the Department of Psychology, draws the city into his research by studying second language acquisition in preschool and school-aged children.

Genesee’s work has been influential in debunking the myth that learning a second language can hinder a child’s educational progress. On the contrary, children simultaneously learning two languages reach the same developmental milestones – speech segmenting, babbling, and first words – at the same age as monolingual children. “It’s not a challenge to the children,” Genesee said. “The challenge is for the parents to provide enough [linguistic]input.”

In fact, Genesee pointed out that there are cognitive advantages to learning two languages. Bilinguals tend to be better at executive functions, processes which control the flow of attention for decision-making and everyday problem-solving. Children who learn two languages constantly control which language they use. Genesee called it a kind of “mental calisthenics.”

These advantages carry into adulthood as well. In bilingual people who develop Alzheimer’s disease, the onset of the disease is delayed compared to monolinguals.  Bilinguals are also less likely to suffer from dementia and age-related cognitive decline.

Canada is a bilingual country, and immersion programs have been offered in schools since 1965; however, some of these programs still suffer from the misconception that bilingual language acquisition may delay progress. In addition, immersion programs don’t always provide the same range of resources as regular schools.  As a result, children who are struggling in school are often discouraged from participating in immersion programs.

Genesee sees this as a serious ethical concern.  “In a sense, these programs can become elitist,” he noted, adding that “all kids should have access to these programs and discouraging kids that might struggle in them is exclusionary. You’re potentially depriving them of skills they need later in life.” Conversely, students who struggle in math are not discouraged from learning math – it’s a skill they need to function in the world.

With globalization, bilingualism is more valuable than ever. In areas outside North America, English immersion is in demand, and many schools use the immersion programs initiated here in Canada as models. “If you know French and you learn English, your possibilities explode,” Genesee reflected. “You have far more access if you’re bilingual.”


On research in the age of the internet

Cognitive training tools, brain games, cognitive exercises: call them what you will, personalized online games that supposedly make you smarter have grown rapidly in popularity as computers have become ubiquitous in our society. Lumosity, arguably the best-known of these, calls upon its users to “harness [their] brain’s neuroplasticity and train [their] way to a brighter life.” But these cognitive tools are used in a slightly different way in the Prevention of Neurodegenerative Diseases in Everyone at Risk (PONDER) initiative currently underway at the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging, under the guidance of Jens Pruessner.

In an interview with The Daily, Pruessner defined PONDER as “a cognitive training program that…[allows people] to train in areas of cognition that have been shown to benefit from routine exercising and repeated training.” However, it is also a research project that makes use of the users’ results to analyze the changes in cognitive data over time, in hopes that this will identify variables related to age-related disease. Eventually this may aid in the prevention of disease onset, though Pruessner says that at this point, the timespan for such developments is not clear.

The research conducted through PONDER is targeted at adults who are forty to sixty years old, and while the online interface allows the project a broad reach, it also introduces unique challenges, for example, the difficulty of accurately identifying an individual’s age from behind a screen. The researcher must rely on the information the subject provides.  This is why Pruessner emphasizes that the cognitive training tools are available to all. If the program was restricted to a certain demographic,  the scientific controls of the experiment could be compromised, by causing, as Pruessner told The Daily, “people [to] claim to be forty and over even though they’re not.”

This is one example of the challenges related to the control elements of the experiment. Pruessner also mentioned other typically controlled aspects of experiments that are made more difficult through an online interface, such as testing environment and time of day. On using this online interface for conducting an experiment, especially in an age of increasing technological literacy, Pruessner noted that “it’s attractive to think of the amount of time and resources you can save,” but stressed the importance of finding “a good question that can be answered with these types of tools.”