Publications

Displaying 1 - 24 of 24
  • Dalla Bella, S., Janaqi, S., Benoit, C.-E., Farrugia, N., Bégel, V., Verga, L., Harding, E. E., & Kotz, S. A. (2024). Unravelling individual rhythmic abilities using machine learning. Scientific Reports, 14: 1135. doi:10.1038/s41598-024-51257-7.

    Abstract

    Humans can easily extract the rhythm of a complex sound, like music, and move to its regular beat, like in dance. These abilities are modulated by musical training and vary significantly in untrained individuals. The causes of this variability are multidimensional and typically hard to grasp in single tasks. To date we lack a comprehensive model capturing the rhythmic fingerprints of both musicians and non-musicians. Here we harnessed machine learning to extract a parsimonious model of rhythmic abilities, based on behavioral testing (with perceptual and motor tasks) of individuals with and without formal musical training (n = 79). We demonstrate that variability in rhythmic abilities and their link with formal and informal music experience can be successfully captured by profiles including a minimal set of behavioral measures. These findings highlight that machine learning techniques can be employed successfully to distill profiles of rhythmic abilities, and ultimately shed light on individual variability and its relationship with both formal musical training and informal musical experiences.

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  • Leitner, C., D’Este, G., Verga, L., Rahayel, S., Mombelli, S., Sforza, M., Casoni, F., Zucconi, M., Ferini-Strambi, L., & Galbiati, A. (2023). Neuropsychological changes in isolated REM sleep behavior disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis of cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. Neuropsychology Review. Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s11065-022-09572-1.

    Abstract

    The aim of this meta-analysis is twofold: (a) to assess cognitive impairments in isolated rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder (iRBD) patients compared to healthy controls (HC); (b) to quantitatively estimate the risk of developing a neurodegenerative disease in iRBD patients according to baseline cognitive assessment. To address the first aim, cross-sectional studies including polysomnography-confirmed iRBD patients, HC, and reporting neuropsychological testing were included. To address the second aim, longitudinal studies including polysomnography-confirmed iRBD patients, reporting baseline neuropsychological testing for converted and still isolated patients separately were included. The literature search was conducted based on PRISMA guidelines and the protocol was registered at PROSPERO (CRD42021253427). Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies were searched from PubMed, Web of Science, Scopus, and Embase databases. Publication bias and statistical heterogeneity were assessed respectively by funnel plot asymmetry and using I2. Finally, a random-effect model was performed to pool the included studies. 75 cross-sectional (2,398 HC and 2,460 iRBD patients) and 11 longitudinal (495 iRBD patients) studies were selected. Cross-sectional studies showed that iRBD patients performed significantly worse in cognitive screening scores (random-effects (RE) model = –0.69), memory (RE model = –0.64), and executive function (RE model = –0.50) domains compared to HC. The survival analyses conducted for longitudinal studies revealed that lower executive function and language performance, as well as the presence of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), at baseline were associated with an increased risk of conversion at follow-up. Our study underlines the importance of a comprehensive neuropsychological assessment in the context of iRBD.

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  • Verga, L., D’Este, G., Cassani, S., Leitner, C., Kotz, S. A., Ferini-Strambi, L., & Galbiati, A. (2023). Sleeping with time in mind? A literature review and a proposal for a screening questionnaire on self-awakening. PLoS One, 18(3): e0283221. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0283221.

    Abstract

    Some people report being able to spontaneously “time” the end of their sleep. This ability to self-awaken challenges the idea of sleep as a passive cognitive state. Yet, current evidence on this phenomenon is limited, partly because of the varied definitions of self-awakening and experimental approaches used to study it. Here, we provide a review of the literature on self-awakening. Our aim is to i) contextualise the phenomenon, ii) propose an operating definition, and iii) summarise the scientific approaches used so far. The literature review identified 17 studies on self-awakening. Most of them adopted an objective sleep evaluation (76%), targeted nocturnal sleep (76%), and used a single criterion to define the success of awakening (82%); for most studies, this corresponded to awakening occurring in a time window of 30 minutes around the expected awakening time. Out of 715 total participants, 125 (17%) reported to be self-awakeners, with an average age of 23.24 years and a slight predominance of males compared to females. These results reveal self-awakening as a relatively rare phenomenon. To facilitate the study of self-awakening, and based on the results of the literature review, we propose a quick paper-and-pencil screening questionnaire for self-awakeners and provide an initial validation for it. Taken together, the combined results of the literature review and the proposed questionnaire help in characterising a theoretical framework for self-awakenings, while providing a useful tool and empirical suggestions for future experimental studies, which should ideally employ objective measurements.
  • Verga, L., Kotz, S. A., & Ravignani, A. (2023). The evolution of social timing. Physics of Life Reviews, 46, 131-151. doi:10.1016/j.plrev.2023.06.006.

    Abstract

    Sociality and timing are tightly interrelated in human interaction as seen in turn-taking or synchronised dance movements. Sociality and timing also show in communicative acts of other species that might be pleasurable, but also necessary for survival. Sociality and timing often co-occur, but their shared phylogenetic trajectory is unknown: How, when, and why did they become so tightly linked? Answering these questions is complicated by several constraints; these include the use of divergent operational definitions across fields and species, the focus on diverse mechanistic explanations (e.g., physiological, neural, or cognitive), and the frequent adoption of anthropocentric theories and methodologies in comparative research. These limitations hinder the development of an integrative framework on the evolutionary trajectory of social timing and make comparative studies not as fruitful as they could be. Here, we outline a theoretical and empirical framework to test contrasting hypotheses on the evolution of social timing with species-appropriate paradigms and consistent definitions. To facilitate future research, we introduce an initial set of representative species and empirical hypotheses. The proposed framework aims at building and contrasting evolutionary trees of social timing toward and beyond the crucial branch represented by our own lineage. Given the integration of cross-species and quantitative approaches, this research line might lead to an integrated empirical-theoretical paradigm and, as a long-term goal, explain why humans are such socially coordinated animals.
  • Verga, L., Schwartze, M., & Kotz, S. A. (2023). Neurophysiology of language pathologies. In M. Grimaldi, E. Brattico, & Y. Shtyrov (Eds.), Language Electrified: Neuromethods (pp. 753-776). New York, NY: Springer US. doi:10.1007/978-1-0716-3263-5_24.

    Abstract

    Language- and speech-related disorders are among the most frequent consequences of developmental and acquired pathologies. While classical approaches to the study of these disorders typically employed the lesion method to unveil one-to-one correspondence between locations, the extent of the brain damage, and corresponding symptoms, recent advances advocate the use of online methods of investigation. For example, the use of electrophysiology or magnetoencephalography—especially when combined with anatomical measures—allows for in vivo tracking of real-time language and speech events, and thus represents a particularly promising venue for future research targeting rehabilitative interventions. In this chapter, we provide a comprehensive overview of language and speech pathologies arising from cortical and/or subcortical damage, and their corresponding neurophysiological and pathological symptoms. Building upon the reviewed evidence and literature, we aim at providing a description of how the neurophysiology of the language network changes as a result of brain damage. We will conclude by summarizing the evidence presented in this chapter, while suggesting directions for future research.
  • Verga, L., Sroka, M. G. U., Varola, M., Villanueva, S., & Ravignani, A. (2022). Spontaneous rhythm discrimination in a mammalian vocal learner. Biology Letters, 18: 20220316. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2022.0316.

    Abstract

    Rhythm and vocal production learning are building blocks of human music and speech. Vocal learning has been hypothesized as a prerequisite for rhythmic capacities. Yet, no mammalian vocal learner but humans have shown the capacity to flexibly and spontaneously discriminate rhythmic patterns. Here we tested untrained rhythm discrimination in a mammalian vocal learning species, the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina). Twenty wild-born seals were exposed to music-like playbacks of conspecific call sequences varying in basic rhythmic properties. These properties were called length, sequence regularity, and overall tempo. All three features significantly influenced seals' reaction (number of looks and their duration), demonstrating spontaneous rhythm discrimination in a vocal learning mammal. This finding supports the rhythm–vocal learning hypothesis and showcases pinnipeds as promising models for comparative research on rhythmic phylogenies.
  • Hoeksema, N., Verga, L., Mengede, J., Van Roessel, C., Villanueva, S., Salazar-Casals, A., Rubio-Garcia, A., Curcic-Blake, B., Vernes, S. C., & Ravignani, A. (2021). Neuroanatomy of the grey seal brain: Bringing pinnipeds into the neurobiological study of vocal learning. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 376: 20200252. doi:10.1098/rstb.2020.0252.

    Abstract

    Comparative studies of vocal learning and vocal non-learning animals can increase our understanding of the neurobiology and evolution of vocal learning and human speech. Mammalian vocal learning is understudied: most research has either focused on vocal learning in songbirds or its absence in non-human primates. Here we focus on a highly promising model species for the neurobiology of vocal learning: grey seals. We provide a neuroanatomical atlas (based on dissected brain slices and magnetic resonance images), a labelled MRI template, a 3D model with volumetric measurements of brain regions, and histological cortical stainings. Four main features of the grey seal brain stand out. (1) It is relatively big and highly convoluted. (2) It hosts a relatively large temporal lobe and cerebellum, structures which could support developed timing abilities and acoustic processing. (3) The cortex is similar to humans in thickness and shows the expected six-layered mammalian structure. (4) Expression of FoxP2 - a gene involved in vocal learning and spoken language - is present in deeper layers of the cortex. Our results could facilitate future studies targeting the neural and genetic underpinnings of mammalian vocal learning, thus bridging the research gap from songbirds to humans and non-human primates.Competing Interest StatementThe authors have declared no competing interest.
  • Varola*, M., Verga*, L., Sroka, M., Villanueva, S., Charrier, I., & Ravignani, A. (2021). Can harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) discriminate familiar conspecific calls after long periods of separation? PeerJ, 9: e12431. doi:10.7717/peerj.12431.

    Abstract

    * - indicates joint first authorship -
    The ability to discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar calls may play a key role in pinnipeds’ communication and survival, as in the case of mother-pup interactions. Vocal discrimination abilities have been suggested to be more developed in pinniped species with the highest selective pressure such as the otariids; yet, in some group-living phocids, such as harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), mothers are also able to recognize their pup’s voice. Conspecifics’ vocal recognition in pups has never been investigated; however, the repeated interaction occurring between pups within the breeding season suggests that long-term vocal discrimination may occur. Here we explored this hypothesis by presenting three rehabilitated seal pups with playbacks of vocalizations from unfamiliar or familiar pups. It is uncommon for seals to come into rehabilitation for a second time in their lifespan, and this study took advantage of these rare cases. A simple visual inspection of the data plots seemed to show more reactions, and of longer duration, in response to familiar as compared to unfamiliar playbacks in two out of three pups. However, statistical analyses revealed no significant difference between the experimental conditions. We also found no significant asymmetry in orientation (left vs. right) towards familiar and unfamiliar sounds. While statistics do not support the hypothesis of an established ability to discriminate familiar vocalizations from unfamiliar ones in harbor seal pups, further investigations with a larger sample size are needed to confirm or refute this hypothesis.

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  • Verga, L., & Ravignani, A. (2021). Strange seal sounds: Claps, slaps, and multimodal pinniped rhythms. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 9: 644497. doi:10.3389/fevo.2021.644497.
  • Verga, L., Schwartze, M., Stapert, S., Winkens, I., & Kotz, S. A. (2021). Dysfunctional timing in traumatic brain injury patients: Co-occurrence of cognitive, motor, and perceptual deficits. Frontiers in Psychology, 12: 731898. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.731898.

    Abstract

    Timing is an essential part of human cognition and of everyday life activities, such as walking or holding a conversation. Previous studies showed that traumatic brain injury (TBI) often affects cognitive functions such as processing speed and time-sensitive abilities, causing long-term sequelae as well as daily impairments. However, the existing evidence on timing capacities in TBI is mostly limited to perception and the processing of isolated intervals. It is therefore open whether the observed deficits extend to motor timing and to continuous dynamic tasks that more closely match daily life activities. The current study set out to answer these questions by assessing audio motor timing abilities and their relationship with cognitive functioning in a group of TBI patients (n=15) and healthy matched controls. We employed a comprehensive set of tasks aiming at testing timing abilities across perception and production and from single intervals to continuous auditory sequences. In line with previous research, we report functional impairments in TBI patients concerning cognitive processing speed and perceptual timing. Critically, these deficits extended to motor timing: The ability to adjust to tempo changes in an auditory pacing sequence was impaired in TBI patients, and this motor timing deficit covaried with measures of processing speed. These findings confirm previous evidence on perceptual and cognitive timing deficits resulting from TBI and provide first evidence for comparable deficits in motor behavior. This suggests basic co-occurring perceptual and motor timing impairments that may factor into a wide range of daily activities. Our results thus place TBI into the wider range of pathologies with well-documented timing deficits (such as Parkinson’s disease) and encourage the search for novel timing-based therapeutic interventions (e.g., employing dynamic and/or musical stimuli) with high transfer potential to everyday life activities.

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  • Ferraro, S., Nigri, A., D'incerti, L., Rosazza, C., Sattin, D., Sebastiano, D. R., Visani, E., Duran, D., Marotta, G., De Michelis, G., Catricalà, E., Kotz, S. A., Verga, L., Leonardi, M., Cappa, S. F., & Bruzzone, M. G. (2020). Preservation of language processing and auditory performance in patients with disorders of consciousness: a multimodal assessment. Frontiers in Neurology, 11: 526465. doi:10.3389/fneur.2020.526465.

    Abstract

    The impact of language impairment on the clinical assessment of patients suffering from disorders of consciousness (DOC) is unknown or underestimated, and may mask the presence of conscious behavior. In a group of DOC patients (n=11; time post-injury range:5-252 months), we investigated the main neural functional and structural underpinnings of linguistic processing, and their relationship with the behavioral measures of the auditory function, using the Coma Recovery Scale-Revised (CRS-R). We assessed the integrity of the brainstem auditory pathways, of the left superior temporal gyrus and arcuate fasciculus, the neural activity elicited by passive listening of an auditory language task and the mean hemispheric glucose metabolism.
    Our results support the hypothesis of a relationship between the level of preservation of the investigated structures/functions and the CRS-R auditory subscale scores.
    Moreover, our findings indicate that patients in minimally conscious state minus (MCS-): 1) when presenting the \emph{auditory startle} (at the CRS-R auditory subscale) might be aphasic in the receptive domain, being severely impaired in the core language structures/functions; 2) when presenting the \emph{localization to sound} might retain language processing, being almost intact or intact in the core language structures/functions. Despite the small group of investigated patients, our findings provide a grounding of the clinical measures of the CRS-R auditory subscale in the integrity of the underlying auditory structures/functions. Future studies are needed to confirm our results that might have important consequences for the clinical practice.
  • Galbiati, A., Sforza, M., Poletti, M., Verga, L., Zucconi, M., Ferini-Strambi, L., & Castronovo, V. (2020). Insomnia patients with subjective short total sleep time have a boosted response to cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia despite residual symptoms. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 18(1), 58-67. doi:10.1080/15402002.2018.1545650.

    Abstract

    Background: Two distinct insomnia disorder (ID) phenotypes have been proposed, distinguished on the basis of an objective total sleep time less or more than 6 hr. In particular, it has been recently reported that patients with objective short sleep duration have a blunted response to cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). The aim of this study was to investigate the differences of CBT-I response in two groups of ID patients subdivided according to total sleep time. Methods: Two hundred forty-six ID patients were subdivided into two groups, depending on their reported total sleep time (TST) assessed by sleep diaries. Patients with a TST greater than 6 hr were classified as “normal sleepers” (NS), while those with a total sleep time less than 6 hr were classified as “short sleepers” (SS). Results: The delta between Insomnia Severity Index scores and sleep efficiency at the beginning as compared to the end of the treatment was significantly higher for SS in comparison to NS, even if they still exhibit more insomnia symptoms. No difference was found between groups in terms of remitters; however, more responders were observed in the SS group in comparison to the NS group. Conclusions: Our results demonstrate that ID patients with reported short total sleep time had a beneficial response to CBT-I of greater magnitude in comparison to NS. However, these patients may still experience the presence of residual insomnia symptoms after treatment.
  • Galbiati, A., Verga, L., Giora, E., Zucconi, M., & Ferini-Strambi, L. (2019). The risk of neurodegeneration in REM sleep behavior disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 43, 37-46. doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2018.09.008.

    Abstract

    Several studies report an association between REM Sleep Behavior Disorder (RBD) and neurodegenerative diseases, in particular synucleinopathies. Interestingly, the onset of RBD precedes the development of neurodegeneration by several years. This review and meta-analysis aims to establish the rate of conversion of RBD into neurodegenerative diseases. Longitudinal studies were searched from the PubMed, Web of Science, and SCOPUS databases. Using random-effect modeling, we performed a meta-analysis on the rate of RBD conversions into neurodegeneration. Furthermore, we fitted a Kaplan-Meier analysis and compared the differences between survival curves of different diseases with log-rank tests. The risk for developing neurodegenerative diseases was 33.5% at five years follow-up, 82.4% at 10.5 years and 96.6% at 14 years. The average conversion rate was 31.95% after a mean duration of follow-up of 4.75 ± 2.43 years. The majority of RBD patients converted to Parkinson's Disease (43%), followed by Dementia with Lewy Bodies (25%). The estimated risk for RBD patients to develop a neurodegenerative disease over a long-term follow-up is more than 90%. Future studies should include control group for the evaluation of REM sleep without atonia as marker for neurodegeneration also in non-clinical population and target RBD as precursor of neurodegeneration to develop protective trials.
  • Ravignani, A., Verga, L., & Greenfield, M. D. (2019). Interactive rhythms across species: The evolutionary biology of animal chorusing and turn-taking. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1453(1), 12-21. doi:10.1111/nyas.14230.

    Abstract

    The study of human language is progressively moving toward comparative and interactive frameworks, extending the concept of turn‐taking to animal communication. While such an endeavor will help us understand the interactive origins of language, any theoretical account for cross‐species turn‐taking should consider three key points. First, animal turn‐taking must incorporate biological studies on animal chorusing, namely how different species coordinate their signals over time. Second, while concepts employed in human communication and turn‐taking, such as intentionality, are still debated in animal behavior, lower level mechanisms with clear neurobiological bases can explain much of animal interactive behavior. Third, social behavior, interactivity, and cooperation can be orthogonal, and the alternation of animal signals need not be cooperative. Considering turn‐taking a subset of chorusing in the rhythmic dimension may avoid overinterpretation and enhance the comparability of future empirical work.
  • Verga, L., & Kotz, S. A. (2019). Putting language back into ecological communication contexts. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 34(4), 536-544. doi:10.1080/23273798.2018.1506886.

    Abstract

    Language is a multi-faceted form of communication. It is not until recently though that language research moved on from simple stimuli and protocols toward a more ecologically valid approach, namely “shifting” from words and simple sentences to stories with varying degrees of contextual complexity. While much needed, the use of ecologically valid stimuli such as stories should also be explored in interactive rather than individualistic experimental settings leading the way to an interactive neuroscience of language. Indeed, mounting evidence suggests that cognitive processes and their underlying neural activity significantly differ between social and individual experiences. We aim at reviewing evidence, which indicates that the characteristics of linguistic and extra-linguistic contexts may significantly influence communication–including spoken language comprehension. In doing so, we provide evidence on the use of new paradigms and methodological advancements that may enable the study of complex language features in a truly interactive, ecological way.
  • Verga, L., & Kotz, S. A. (2019). Spatial attention underpins social word learning in the right fronto-parietal network. NeuroImage, 195, 165-173. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.03.071.

    Abstract

    In a multi- and inter-cultural world, we daily encounter new words. Adult learners often rely on a situational context to learn and understand a new word's meaning. Here, we explored whether interactive learning facilitates word learning by directing the learner's attention to a correct new word referent when a situational context is non-informative. We predicted larger involvement of inferior parietal, frontal, and visual cortices involved in visuo-spatial attention during interactive learning. We scanned participants while they played a visual word learning game with and without a social partner. As hypothesized, interactive learning enhanced activity in the right Supramarginal Gyrus when the situational context provided little information. Activity in the right Inferior Frontal Gyrus during interactive learning correlated with post-scanning behavioral test scores, while these scores correlated with activity in the Fusiform Gyrus in the non-interactive group. These results indicate that attention is involved in interactive learning when the situational context is minimal and suggest that individual learning processes may be largely different from interactive ones. As such, they challenge the ecological validity of what we know about individual learning and advocate the exploration of interactive learning in naturalistic settings.
  • Valentin, B., Verga, L., Benoit, C.-E., Kotz, S. A., & Dalla Bella, S. (2018). Test-retest reliability of the battery for the assessment of auditory sensorimotor and timing abilities (BAASTA). Annals of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine, 61(6), 395-400. doi:10.1016/j.rehab.2018.04.001.

    Abstract

    Perceptual and sensorimotor timing skills can be thoroughly assessed with the Battery for the Assessment of Auditory Sensorimotor and Timing Abilities (BAASTA). The battery has been used for testing rhythmic skills in healthy adults and patient populations (e.g., with Parkinson disease), showing sensitivity to timing and rhythm deficits. Here we assessed the test-retest reliability of the BAASTA in 20 healthy adults. Participants were tested twice with the BAASTA, implemented on a tablet interface, with a 2-week interval. They completed 4 perceptual tasks, namely, duration discrimination, anisochrony detection with tones and music, and the Beat Alignment Test (BAT). Moreover, they completed motor tasks via finger tapping, including unpaced and paced tapping with tones and music, synchronization-continuation, and adaptive tapping to a sequence with a tempo change. Despite high variability among individuals, the results showed good test-retest reliability in most tasks. A slight but significant improvement from test to retest was found in tapping with music, which may reflect a learning effect. In general, the BAASTA was found a reliable tool for evaluating timing and rhythm skills.
  • Dalla Bella, S., Farrugia, F., Benoit, C.-E., Begel, V., Verga, L., Harding, E., & Kotz, S. A. (2017). BAASTA: Battery for the Assessment of Auditory Sensorimotor and Timing Abilities. Behavior Research Methods, 49(3), 1128-1145. doi:10.3758/s13428-016-0773-6.

    Abstract

    The Battery for the Assessment of Auditory Sensorimotor and Timing Abilities (BAASTA) is a new tool for the systematic assessment of perceptual and sensorimotor timing skills. It spans a broad range of timing skills aimed at differentiating individual timing profiles. BAASTA consists of sensitive time perception and production tasks. Perceptual tasks include duration discrimination, anisochrony detection (with tones and music), and a version of the Beat Alignment Task. Perceptual thresholds for duration discrimination and anisochrony detection are estimated with a maximum likelihood procedure (MLP) algorithm. Production tasks use finger tapping and include unpaced and paced tapping (with tones and music), synchronization-continuation, and adaptive tapping to a sequence with a tempo change. BAASTA was tested in a proof-of-concept study with 20 non-musicians (Experiment 1). To validate the results of the MLP procedure, less widespread than standard staircase methods, three perceptual tasks of the battery (duration discrimination, anisochrony detection with tones, and with music) were further tested in a second group of non-musicians using 2 down / 1 up and 3 down / 1 up staircase paradigms (n = 24) (Experiment 2). The results show that the timing profiles provided by BAASTA allow to detect cases of timing/rhythm disorders. In addition, perceptual thresholds yielded by the MLP algorithm, although generally comparable to the results provided by standard staircase, tend to be slightly lower. In sum, BAASTA provides a comprehensive battery to test perceptual and sensorimotor timing skills, and to detect timing/rhythm deficits.
  • Verga, L., & Kotz, S. A. (2017). Help me if I can't: Social interaction effects in adult contextual word learning. Cognition, 168, 76-90. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2017.06.018.

    Abstract

    A major challenge in second language acquisition is to build up new vocabulary. How is it possible to identify the meaning of a new word among several possible referents? Adult learners typically use contextual information, which reduces the number of possible referents a new word can have. Alternatively, a social partner may facilitate word learning by directing the learner’s attention toward the correct new word meaning. While much is known about the role of this form of ‘joint attention’ in first language acquisition, little is known about its efficacy in second language acquisition. Consequently, we introduce and validate a novel visual word learning game to evaluate how joint attention affects the contextual learning of new words in a second language. Adult learners either acquired new words in a constant or variable sentence context by playing the game with a knowledgeable partner, or by playing the game alone on a computer. Results clearly show that participants who learned new words in social interaction (i) are faster in identifying a correct new word referent in variable sentence contexts, and (ii) temporally coordinate their behavior with a social partner. Testing the learned words in a post-learning recall or recognition task showed that participants, who learned interactively, better recognized words originally learned in a variable context. While this result may suggest that interactive learning facilitates the allocation of attention to a target referent, the differences in the performance during recognition and recall call for further studies investigating the effect of social interaction on learning performance. In summary, we provide first evidence on the role joint attention in second language learning. Furthermore, the new interactive learning game offers itself to further testing in complex neuroimaging research, where the lack of appropriate experimental set-ups has so far limited the investigation of the neural basis of adult word learning in social interaction.
  • Ferreri, L., & Verga, L. (2016). Benefits of music on verbal learning and memory: How and when does it work? Music Perception, 34(2), 167-182. doi:10.1525/mp.2016.34.2.167.

    Abstract

    A long-standing debate in cognitive neurosciences concerns the effect of music on verbal learning and memory. Research in this field has largely provided conflicting results in both clinical as well as non-clinical populations. Although several studies have shown a positive effect of music on the encoding and retrieval of verbal stimuli, music has also been suggested to hinder mnemonic performance by dividing attention. In an attempt to explain this conflict, we review the most relevant literature on the effects of music on verbal learning and memory. Furthermore, we specify several mechanisms through which music may modulate these cognitive functions. We suggest that the extent to which music boosts these cognitive functions relies on experimental factors, such as the relative complexity of musical and verbal stimuli employed. These factors should be carefully considered in further studies, in order to reliably establish how and when music boosts verbal memory and learning. The answers to these questions are not only crucial for our knowledge of how music influences cognitive and brain functions, but may have important clinical implications. Considering the increasing number of approaches using music as a therapeutic tool, the importance of understanding exactly how music works can no longer be underestimated.
  • Verga, L. (2015). Learning together or learning alone: Investigating the role of social interaction in second language word learning. PhD Thesis, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany.
  • Verga, L., Bigand, E., & Kotz, S. A. (2015). Play along: Effects of music and social interaction on word learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 6: 1316. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01316.

    Abstract

    Learning new words is an increasingly common necessity in everyday life. External factors, among which music and social interaction are particularly debated, are claimed to facilitate this task. Due to their influence on the learner’s temporal behavior, these stimuli are able to drive the learner’s attention to the correct referent of new words at the correct point in time. However, do music and social interaction impact learning behavior in the same way? The current study aims to answer this question. Native German speakers (N = 80) were requested to learn new words (pseudo-words) during a contextual learning game. This learning task was performed alone with a computer or with a partner, with or without music. Results showed that music and social interaction had a different impact on the learner’s behavior: Participants tended to temporally coordinate their behavior more with a partner than with music, and in both cases more than with a computer. However, when both music and social interaction were present, this temporal coordination was hindered. These results suggest that while music and social interaction do influence participants’ learning behavior, they have a different impact. Moreover, impaired behavior when both music and a partner are present suggests that different mechanisms are employed to coordinate with the two types of stimuli. Whether one or the other approach is more efficient for word learning, however, is a question still requiring further investigation, as no differences were observed between conditions in a retrieval phase, which took place immediately after the learning session. This study contributes to the literature on word learning in adults by investigating two possible facilitating factors, and has important implications for situations such as music therapy, in which music and social interaction are present at the same time.
  • Spada, D., Verga, L., Iadanza, A., Tettamanti, M., & Perani, D. (2014). The auditory scene: An fMRI study on melody and accompaniment in professional pianists. NeuroImage, 102(2), 764-775. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.08.036.

    Abstract

    The auditory scene is a mental representation of individual sounds extracted from the summed sound waveform reaching the ears of the listeners. Musical contexts represent particularly complex cases of auditory scenes. In such a scenario, melody may be seen as the main object moving on a background represented by the accompaniment. Both melody and accompaniment vary in time according to harmonic rules, forming a typical texture with melody in the most prominent, salient voice. In the present sparse acquisition functional magnetic resonance imaging study, we investigated the interplay between melody and accompaniment in trained pianists, by observing the activation responses elicited by processing: (1) melody placed in the upper and lower texture voices, leading to, respectively, a higher and lower auditory salience; (2) harmonic violations occurring in either the melody, the accompaniment, or both. The results indicated that the neural activation elicited by the processing of polyphonic compositions in expert musicians depends upon the upper versus lower position of the melodic line in the texture, and showed an overall greater activation for the harmonic processing of melody over accompaniment. Both these two predominant effects were characterized by the involvement of the posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus, among other associative brain regions. We discuss the prominent role of the posterior medial cortex in the processing of melodic and harmonic information in the auditory stream, and propose to frame this processing in relation to the cognitive construction of complex multimodal sensory imagery scenes.
  • Verga, L., & Kotz, S. A. (2013). How relevant is social interaction in second language learning? Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7: 550. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00550.

    Abstract

    Verbal language is the most widespread mode of human communication, and an intrinsically social activity. This claim is strengthened by evidence emerging from different fields, which clearly indicates that social interaction influences human communication, and more specifically, language learning. Indeed, research conducted with infants and children shows that interaction with a caregiver is necessary to acquire language. Further evidence on the influence of sociality on language comes from social and linguistic pathologies, in which deficits in social and linguistic abilities are tightly intertwined, as is the case for Autism, for example. However, studies on adult second language (L2) learning have been mostly focused on individualistic approaches, partly because of methodological constraints, especially of imaging methods. The question as to whether social interaction should be considered as a critical factor impacting upon adult language learning still remains underspecified. Here, we review evidence in support of the view that sociality plays a significant role in communication and language learning, in an attempt to emphasize factors that could facilitate this process in adult language learning. We suggest that sociality should be considered as a potentially influential factor in adult language learning and that future studies in this domain should explicitly target this factor.

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