Are differences in learning patterns related to language development? Northeastern researchers are cracking the code

Do autistic children develop language skills differently from their neurotypical peers? A group of researchers at Northeastern University have launched a new brain imaging study to look into the relationship between language skills and how children track and organize data from sensory inputs without conscious awareness.

A substantial subgroup of children with autism show delay in learning speech sounds, grammar, and vocabulary in their native language. About 30% of autistic children struggle to acquire functional language. Over 40% of verbal children on the spectrum are unable to utter complex sentences at age nine, and over 50% have borderline or impaired language.

The team of researchers wants to go to the beginning to study how children learn. 

Zhenghan Qi, MD/PhD is the director of the Language Acquisition and Brain Laboratory (QLAB) at Northeastern University and is leading the Brain, Language, and Autism Study (BLAST). She says the research is important in helping to further pinpoint related brain regions and to determine the origins of language challenges because so far,no theories in autism readily explain the heterogeneity of language profiles in ASD.   

Qi’s study, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), consists of two research phases. 

Phase I: Web-based language and cognitive puzzles. In this phase, children will follow a group of cartoon alien characters on a space excursion while completing several tasks that involve hidden patterns of sequences in the form of syllables, tones, images, or letters.  The team has found that autistic children are not different from their peers in learning tone or image sequences but seem to only show relatively weaker learning for syllables or letter sequences. These findings are currently under peer review and the preprint is available to the public here.  

Phase II: Listening and learning in a brain camera. This phase takes place at the Northeastern University Biomedical Imaging Center, which houses a state-of-the-art MRI scanner. Here, children listen to stories and play alien-themed games while the MRI scanner takes pictures of their brain.  

Families receive brain images and will have the opportunity to learn more about the science behind the study. Qi and her team also stay in contact with the families to inform them of their research findings. 

The COVID-19 pandemic substantially slowed down Phase II data collection. Qi and her team are hoping to get more families to join the brain imaging study so they can find out the neural basis of the intriguing behavioral differences between autistic and neurotypical children during learning.   

Is your child eligible? Participants must be:  

  • Either typically developing or have a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder 
  • Located in the United States and willing to come to Northeastern University Boston Campus for a one-day visit 
  • Between the ages of 6 and 9.5 
  • Native English speakers 

To participate, click here.  

To learn more and speak with Qi and her team, email [email protected] or call 617.373.4505.