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Personalized neuroimaging sheds insight into the role of motivation in language processing

Poster D10 in Poster Session D with Social Hour, Friday, October 7, 5:30 - 7:15 pm EDT, Millennium Hall

Anila D'Mello1, Halie Olson1, Kristina Johnson3, John Gabrieli1; 1Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2Boston Children's Hospital & Harvard Medical School

Most neuroscience research relies on standard paradigms which may obscure important individual differences in the brain. This is especially relevant for the study of language, in which comprehension abilities and even interpretations of the same materials can differ across individuals. Prior studies have demonstrated that manipulating the personal-relevance or salience of stimuli (e.g., changing speaker, altering social context, presenting familiar faces) can alter brain activation. Personal-relevance, interest, and motivation may be particularly relevant for the study of language. Prior studies have shown that interesting materials can increase reading comprehension, and own-name and significant-other-name recognition results in greater activation than processing stranger names. Although individuals vary greatly in what they find intrinsically motivating or interesting, there has been a near absence of research about how individual differences in motivation modulate language processing in the brain. The goal of the current study was to assess how individual differences in motivation or interest affected language processing in the brain using personalized neuroimaging experiments for every child. To do this, we measured language network activation using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in n=19 neurotypical children (mean age=9.32±1.42) while they listened to personalized stories about a passion or hobby of particular interest (“special interest”). For each child, we assessed the intensity, duration, and scope of their specific interest. We wrote and recorded unique stories related to the special interest for every child. We collected fMRI data while children listened to (1) personalized special interest stories, (2) neutral, non-personalized stories, and (3) backward speech as a low-level auditory control. We identified brain regions that showed a higher response for special interests versus neutral stories (special interest>neutral stories). We found that special interest-related stories engaged the language network to a much greater degree than neutral stories and that these patterns were robust at the level of an individual child (t>3.1). Importantly, special interests (often called “circumscribed interests”) are highly prevalent in, and a core diagnostic criterion for, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a disorder characterized in part by challenges in language and social communication. We explored whether this personalized neuroimaging approach similarly potentiated language activation in a small sample of n=8 ASD children (mean age=11.12±1.6). ASD children also showed higher activation for special interest stories than neutral stories. Together, these results suggest that canonical language regions are more sensitive to personally-relevant or motivating speech than neutral speech. These results have implications for the ways we study language in the brain across typical and neurodevelopmental populations. Our findings suggest that the stimuli used in language research have a large effect on which brain regions are activated and the magnitude of this activation, ultimately influencing our interpretation of language processing in the brain. Personalized neuroimaging studies of language could be particularly valuable for understanding individual differences by taking into account higher-level modulators of language such as motivation, which varies greatly from person to person. Lastly, individualized neuroimaging approaches may be a more ecologically-valid way to understand language processing in disorders such as autism. *First three authors contributed equally

Topic Areas: Development, Disorders: Developmental

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