This seminar will be held in the Jerome L. Greene Science Center on Columbia's Manhattanville campus (9th floor lecture hall). Columbia University's Intercampus Shuttle Service is the best way to travel between campuses.
During the last decade we have accrued important knowledge regarding the cognitive and neural mechanisms involved in the hard process of learning a second language, being these studies essential to understand how the brain of bilinguals is sculpted. However, it is still unknown which are the neural process underlying the human interest and drive to learn a language and what maintains in time this effortful activity. Recent theoretical models have proposed that during human evolution, emerging language-learning mechanisms might have been glued to phylogenetically older subcortical reward systems, reinforcing human motivation to learn a new language. Supporting this hypothesis, we recently showed that adult learners exhibited robust functional MRI activation in core reward-pleasure centers (ventral striatum) when successfully learning the meaning of new words. These results provided the first neural evidences of the important role of reward and motivation during language learning and supporting the idea that the strong coupling between neocortical language regions and the subcortical reward system provided a crucial advantage in humans for successfully acquire linguistic skills. Following this research, we observed that successful active language learning (without the presence of external feedback) triggered also the activation of motivation-reward memory circuits [midbrain dopaminergic circuits and the hippocampus]. The engagement of intrinsic reward-motivational circuits might depend on the proper evaluation of learning success (metacognitive processes).
We believe this intrinsically motivated-learning mechanism might be crucial for boosting formation of long-term memories, specially in our everyday lives, as we continually acquire new knowledge in the absence of any obvious immediate reward. A key question for the future is whether tapping into intrinsically rewarding forms of learning might be a more effective educational strategy than relying on external feedback and incentives. A second critical issue is to which extent the implication of this reward-learning intrinsic mechanisms could predict the success of the process of learning a new language (considering the contextual and sociolinguistic factors surrounding the learning experience). This could be crucial for improving the design of educational programs – for example, in teaching foreign languages – and for improving the recovery of verbal skills lost after stroke.
Antoni Rodriguez-Fornells got his PhD at the University of Barcelona and worked afterwards at the University of Magdeburg (CAI, Center for Advance Imaging, Germany, 1999-2002) as a post-doctoral researcher. His main topics of research have been language processing and cognitive control functions (performance monitoring). In 2002, he got a "Ramón y Cajal" research position from the Spanish Government and afterwards he joined ICREA (Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies) as a Research Professor. Since then, he has created his research group (Cognition and Brain Plasticity Unit, CDBU) at the Hospital Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute - University of Barcelona devoted to the study of learning process and brain plasticity in healthy and brain damaged patients. His research is inherently interdisciplinary and requires expertise in interfacing research fields as brain plasticity, neuroimaging, brain development, learning and memory mechanisms. Recently, his main research has been focused on the investigation of the neural mechanisms involved in language learning in adults and infants (and specially its interface with cognitive control functions and motivation-reward mechanisms). This approach has been recently applied to understand preserved learning mechanisms in aphasic people.
The Columbia Neuroscience Seminar series is a collaborative effort of Columbia's Zuckerman Institute, the Department of Neuroscience, the Doctoral Program in Neurobiology and Behavior and the Columbia Translational Neuroscience Initiative, and with support from the Kavli Institute for Brain Science.