Language comprehension, and predicting what comes next

Ken McRae, Professor, Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario
Funded by The Garden Centre Group Co-op Corp.
Pilot Project Grant: $40,915

Scientific Title: “She will drive the ---”: Predictive language comprehension in persons with Parkinson's disease

People with Parkinson's disease often report having difficulty keeping up with conversations – a problem that affects their relationships and quality of life.

At the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario, Professor Ken McRae and his research team investigate the reasons behind this difficulty. They're focusing on people's ability to predict what is likely to come next in a sentence, and whether Parkinson's disease damages that ability.

“We focus on meaning, rather than on grammar,” says McRae. “People's comprehension is set up so that our brains are naturally, constantly, automatically predicting what's coming up next as we are listening to people. It's a natural consequence of how people understand language.”

McRae and his team will use an eye-tracking device that records where people are looking as they hear sentences and look at objects on a computer screen, to help them test to what extent people with Parkinson's can predict the word that comes next, based on a verb that precedes it. By tracking where their subjects' eyes move when they see various objects on a screen, the researchers will test how accurately the individual predicts what word comes next.

“We're going to test whether people with Parkinson's disease look at a picture of a car, [for example], while hearing “drive,” in the same way that controls do,” says McRae.

If McRae demonstrates that predictive language ability is impaired in people with Parkinson's, then speech/language pathologists will treat the problem in a different way – including with a new, “highly effective” treatment for strengthening predictive language, he says. The new treatment, called Verb Network Strengthening Treatment (VNeST), is a clinical technique that helps people strengthen their knowledge of who does what to whom, in common situations.

If McRae can open this new treatment avenue, it could improve the ability of people with Parkinson's disease to talk to their family and friends and to enjoy normal, everyday interactions. McRae, a cognitive neuroscientist, has always been intrigued with the way people understand language and the world around us.

“If you can't talk to other people, you're not going to be very happy,” he says. “It's a very important aspect of quality of life.”