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The Lab of the Future

In a new space for brain research, a world of expertise


In Karen Froud’s Neurocognition of Language lab in Thorndike Hall even blue-eyed, black Madagascar lemurs have a voice. Recordings of their raucous burble are a frequent reminder that brain research demands a meeting of diverse minds.

“TC is unique in providing the opportunity to collaborate with so many different people, to study such a range of phenomena and behaviors, and to think about it all in the framework of what’s actually going on in society,” says Froud, Associate Professor of Neuroscience & Education and Speech & Language Pathology.

Froud and her students helped renovate the lab last summer to better support such work. “When you come here, you become part speech pathologist, part physicist, part electrical engineer,” says Ph.D. student and lab manager Trey Avery.

The reconfigured space gives Froud room to expand research and work toward launching a new Ph.D. program in Neuroscience & Education. A second 128-channel electroencephalography (EEG) system — the lab’s primary tool to pinpoint the brain’s real-time responses to specific stimuli — permits uninterrupted data collection.

“This is our concept of a classroom of the future, combining lab with teaching space,” Froud says. The resulting student apprenticeship is unique in a hierarchical and narrowly structured field. “I’m surrounded by people from around the world with expertise in education, the clinic, the policymaking arena. They ask: ‘How do children learn to read?’ ‘How does poverty affect education?’ ‘How does what we do in a speech/ language clinic change the way children talk or perceive sound?’ We try to bring these huge questions, which can inform clinical interventions for populations in need, down to an actual experimental manipulation.”

The lemur recordings, for example, figure in research by Froud and former student Reem Khamis-Dakwar on a speech disorder called apraxia. Manifesting primarily as a difficulty in producing complex sounds, the condition is widely considered one of motor coordination. However in linguistic analyses, the speech of adult stroke patients with apraxia lacks evidence of co-articulation, the capacity to physically shape and continuously sequence upcoming sounds while speaking.

Co-articulation, in turn, depends on under-specification — the brain’s ability to screen out unimportant speech sounds and attend to those most relevant. So perhaps children with apraxia don’t underspecify, Froud and Khamis-Dakwar reason. Apraxia must then partly relate to problems in the brain’s sound processing systems or sub-systems. Hence the failure of traditional speech therapy, focusing on movements of the tongue and palate, to help children with the disorder.

Funded by the Childhood Apraxia of Speech Association of North America, the two researchers have since brought children to TC to listen as they wear electrodes that record their brains’ responses to contrasts among various sounds. Spikes on a read¬out graph indicate when a child recognizes differences in speech sounds as distinctive and meaningful. The work requires patience and tight control of noise and light to ensure that brain activity recorded during EEG monitoring is in fact triggered by the stimulus being tested. The payoff is the chance to improve lives now.

“We’ve found that kids with apraxia do indeed specify differently than other children, though the logic of when and why is not yet clear,” says Khamis-Dakwar, who teaches at Adelphi University. “A condition thought to be very complex could hinge on something relatively simple. Although that may not make it any simpler to remediate.”

Froud takes the long view. “A wise man told me, ‘If you do research, you should end up with more questions than answers.’ By that measure, we’re doing it right.”

Published Tuesday, Jun. 3, 2014