Kennesaw State University Magazine Summer 2011 KSU Magazine : Page 11

The Language Connection Kennesaw State professor studies chimpanzees for clues to origins of human language BY JENNIFER HAFER U nder a blistering June sun, assistant biology professor Jared Taglialatela climbs atop his 30-foot perch overlooking a corral containing 11 chimpanzees at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. This is the place where the professor becomes the student. Taglialatela studies the evolutionary origins of human language and the biological processes that support its development. His research focuses on which part of a chimpanzee’s brain is activated when it communicates through gestures or vocalizations. “I’m doing this research for two reasons,” he said. “Science for the sake of science and because there’s a lot of reasons to believe it can help us to develop treatments for certain disorders.” Taglialatela’s research is supported by a $389,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, one of the largest research-specific grants ever awarded to a Kennesaw State University professor. His findings may one day help autistic children speak. Kennesaw State University Magazine | SUMMER 2011 11

The Language Connection

Jennifer Hafer

Jennifer Hafer<br /> <br /> UNder a blistering June sun, assistant biology professor Jared Taglialatela climbs atop his 30-foot perch overlooking a corral containing 11 chimpanzees at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. This is the place where the professor becomes the student.<br /> <br /> Taglialatela studies the evolutionary origins of human language and the biological processes that support its development. His research focuses on which part of a chimpanzee’s brain is activated when it communicates through gestures or vocalizations.<br /> <br /> “I’m doing this research for two reasons,” he said. “Science for the sake of science and because there’s a lot of reasons to believe it can help us to develop treatments for certain disorders.”<br /> <br /> Taglialatela’s research is supported by a $389,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, one of the largest research-specific grants ever awarded to a Kennesaw State University professor. His findings may one day help autistic children speak.<br /> <br /> “A chimpanzee’s brain is a third of the size of a human’s,” Taglialatela said. “They don’t have language, but there are fundamental components of language that humans share with chimpanzees.”<br /> <br /> The question is: Did human language evolve from a strictly manual system of gesturing, or did a common ancestor use manual gesturing in conjunction with vocalization before the split between humans and chimpanzees some 5 million years ago?<br /> <br /> Just as a human baby learns to gesture and use other Nonverbal cues, like looking at an object to indicate desire, chimpanzees do the same thing. On that hot June morning, as a Yerkes keeper tossed apples into the chimps’ corral, the alpha male, Steward, and at least one other chimp, repeatedly raised their hands in an obvious bid for more treats.<br /> <br /> “In the first 10-to-12 months of a human baby’s life, they’re learning how to interact with other individuals through shared attention, gesturing and vocalizing, but we don’t have a good handle on what’s going on in their brains,” Taglialatela said.“We’re trying to figure out the connection between the brain and these communicative behaviors.”<br /> <br /> While conducting his post-doctoral research at Yerkes, Taglialatela earned a fellowship from the National Institutes of Health to investigate functional imaging of communicative behavior in chimpanzees via brain scans.<br /> <br /> In a study published in April, Taglialatela’s research confirmed that the same part of a human’s brain that is activated during speech is activated in chimps when they make communicative gestures and vocal signals. Broca’s area is a region of the cerebral cortex located in the left inferior frontal gyrus, or left lobe, of the human brain, and is critical for the planning and execution of language. Chimpanzees also have a region of the left inferior frontal gyrus that is anatomically similar to the human Broca’s area. Taglialatela’s research led Him to conclude at least some vocal signals produced by the chimps were deliberate and purposeful.<br /> <br /> “This finding contradicts an exclusive ‘gestural origins’ theory for human language, and points to a multimodal origin of human language where manual communicative gestures and vocal signals were commonly controlled and co-evolved in a common hominid ancestor,” Taglialatela explained.<br /> <br /> In his sparsely appointed office in the College of Science and Mathematics, Taglialatela, wearing a T-shirt that proclaims, “I do my own experiments,” struggles to pinpoint how exactly he became an animal researcher. His family had always had pets while he was growing up, and at one point in his youth he thought he might be a veterinarian.<br /> <br /> A primate behavior course during his undergrad studies at the University of Virginia, however, set him upon his chosen path.<br /> <br /> “I thought it was really interesting, and interestingly enough, I got an internship at the DuMond Conservancy,” Taglialatela recalled.<br /> <br /> The DuMond Conservancy for Primates and Tropical Forests is a nonprofit located on the grounds of Monkey Jungle, a 1950s-era tourist attraction in southeast Florida that provides access for behavioral studies of its primate collection.<br /> <br /> While at the conservancy, Taglialatela worked with a National Institutes of Health researcher who needed help with vocalization recordings. The rest, as they say, is history.<br /> <br /> “Language is such a hallmark of human communication,” he said, “and a logical place to look for its origins is in our evolutionary cousins.”<br /> <br /> Armed with his NIH grant and the knowledge that manual gestures in conjunction with vocalization activate the same region of the chimpanzees’ brains that is activated by speech, Taglialatela is turning his attention to researching whether a chimp that gestures, but does not vocalize to get a human experimenter’s attention, is capable of being taught Vocalization. If so, how quickly can it be done and what are the neurobiological effects.<br /> <br /> “It doesn’t appear that chimpanzees that make attentiongetting sounds are smarter than the ones that don’t,” he said. “Preliminary results suggest they’re just not as good communicators.”<br /> <br /> Taglialatela’s NIH grant was awarded specifically by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. If the nonvocalizing chimps can be taught to make attention-getting sounds, and the corresponding brain functions can be identified, it may one day be possible to address a variety of neurodevelopmental and psychological disorders linked to brain activity, such as autism.<br /> <br /> “We’ve learned a lot about what parts of the brain are responsible for the production of language in humans,” he said. “If we can understand the fundamental aspects of communication that chimpanzees share with humans, as well as the neurobiological components that support these competencies, then we may be able to gain new insights into the nature of language deficiencies and how they can be treated.”

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