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Contact: Katya Nasim
katya.nasim@kcl.ac.uk
44-020-784-83840
King's College London

Scientists identify key to learning new words

For the first time scientists have identified how a pathway in the brain which is unique to humans allows us to learn new words

For the first time scientists have identified how a pathway in the brain which is unique to humans allows us to learn new words.

The average adult's vocabulary consists of about 30,000 words. This ability seems unique to humans as even the species closest to us -- chimps -- manage to learn no more than 100.

It has long been believed that language learning depends on the integration of hearing and repeating words but the neural mechanisms behind learning new words remained unclear. Previous studies have shown that this may be related to a pathway in the brain only found in humans and that humans can learn only words that they can articulate.

Now researchers from King's College London Institute of Psychiatry, in collaboration with Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) and the University of Barcelona, have mapped the neural pathways involved in word learning among humans. They found that the arcuate fasciculus, a collection of nerve fibres connecting auditory regions at the temporal lobe with the motor area located at the frontal lobe in the left hemisphere of the brain, allows the 'sound' of a word to be connected to the regions responsible for its articulation. Differences in the development of these auditory-motor connections may explain differences in people's ability to learn words. The results of the study are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Dr Marco Catani, co-author from King's College London Institute of Psychiatry said: "Often humans take their ability to learn words for granted. This research sheds new light on the unique ability of humans to learn a language, as this pathway is not present in other species. The implications of our findings could be wide ranging from how language is taught in schools and rehabilitation from injury, to early detection of language disorders such as dyslexia. In addition these findings could have implications for other disorders where language is affected such as autism and schizophrenia."

The study involved 27 healthy volunteers. Researchers used diffusion tensor imaging to image the structure of the brain before a word learning task and functional MRI, to detect the regions in the brain that were most active during the task. They found a strong relationship between the ability to remember words and the structure of arcuate fasciculus, which connects two brain areas: the territory of Wernicke, related to auditory language decoding, and Broca's area, which coordinates the movements associated with speech and the language processing.

In participants able to learn words more successfully their arcuate fasciculus was more myelinated i.e. the nervous tissue facilitated faster conduction of the electrical signal. In addition the activity between the two regions was more co-ordinated in these participants.

Dr Catani concludes, "Now we understand that this is how we learn new words, our concern is that children will have less vocabulary as much of their interaction is via screen, text and email rather than using their external prosthetic memory. This research reinforces the need for us to maintain the oral tradition of talking to our children."

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The study was funded by the European Research Council, Guy's and St Thomas' Charity and the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health.

For further information please contact

Katya Nasim
International Press Officer, London
Tel: +44 20 7848 3840/+44 (0) 7703 469 550

Notes for Editors

'Word learning is mediated by the left arcuate fasciculus' Lopez-Barroso et al is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1301696110 and highlighted here http://www.pnas.org/site/highlights/highlights.xhtml

About King's College London

King's College London is one of the top 30 universities in the world (2012/13 QS international world rankings), and was The Sunday Times 'University of the Year 2010/11', and the fourth oldest in England. A research-led university based in the heart of London, King's has more than 25,000 students (of whom more than 10,000 are graduate students) from nearly 140 countries, and more than 6,500 employees. King's is in the second phase of a 1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

King's has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for British universities, 23 departments were ranked in the top quartile of British universities; over half of our academic staff work in departments that are in the top 10 per cent in the UK in their field and can thus be classed as world leading. The College is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of nearly 525 million (year ending 31 July 2011).

King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar.

King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King's Health Partners. King's Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world's leading research-led universities and three of London's most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services. For more information, visit: http://www.kingshealthpartners.org.

The College is in the midst of a five-year, 500 million fundraising campaign World questions|King's answers created to address some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity as quickly as feasible. The campaign's five priority areas are neuroscience and mental health, leadership and society, cancer, global power and children's health. More information about the campaign is available at http://www.kcl.ac.uk/kingsanswers.



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