Scientist Profile – Professor Tyler Perrachione

Tyler Perrachione, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences
Director of the 
Communication Neuroscience Research Laboratory
Director of the
Hearing Research Center

The Communication Neuroscience Research Laboratory aims to better understand humans’ complex capacity for communication by studying how brain structure and function support the sending, receiving, and understanding of spoken language messages.

The Lab’s principal investigator, Professor Tyler Perrachione, discussed why he views spoken language communication as a sort of neuroscientific “miracle” and how his fascination with this extraordinary capability drives his research. He also shared a bit about bird photography and why his most desired superpower centers around public transportation.

Professor Tyler Perrachione describes his “sound field laboratory” which can capture a 180-degree listening environment. The sound-attenuating chamber is also set up to simultaneously record eye-tracking and electroencephalogram (EEG) data.

What is the goal of your lab?

We want to understand how the brain encodes and represents language, with a particular focus on spoken language speech. It’s a kind of underappreciated miracle that I can have an idea in my head and then by setting some air in motion I can put the same idea into your head. And it’s at the core of what makes us human. Our social interactions, our history, our development, they all revolve around communication culture. The very foundation of modern society is our ability to share ideas with other people across time and space. Speech makes that possible, and I want to know how the brain makes it work.

Let’s narrow that down—what’s an example of a research question that drives your research?

One intriguing thing about human brains is how unique each one is, even if they all share the same basic structure and function. For instance, every brain has areas of functional specialization. There are parts that do speech processing, parts that do language processing, and these parts are more or less in the same place in every person—and yet, they’re not in exactly the same place, and that individual variability is fascinating to me. Why are they a little bit different? Can we study these anatomical differences to better understand functional specialization within the brain? Can we look at its connectivity or the differences in the distribution of tissue profiles across individuals? And then can those individual variations help us understand why some people struggle with language development, or why some people struggle to learn a second language more than other people do?

Can you describe a project of yours that studies the brain’s functional specialization as it pertains to spoken language?

Let me tell you about one project where the results didn’t come out like I expected. A PhD student in my lab, Arielle Moore, has been using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study changes in functional connectivity from the specialized language regions to other specialized areas when somebody is listening to speech versus when they’re not listening to speech. When you are listening to someone tell a story, for example about a rodeo, you might expect that the language regions of your brain would increase connectivity to other regions, such as the auditory and visual areas that could help you imagine what a rodeo looks and sounds like.

That’s what I thought was going to happen, but what we actually observed is that is that the language areas become more insular while you are listening to a story —in other words, they decrease their connectivity to the rest of the brain while increasing their connectivity to each other. This raises many interesting questions. For instance, during active story listening, are the language areas of the brain taking on some of that role of simulating sensory details rather than relying on auditory and visual centers for help? Or perhaps the connectivity between language areas and non-language areas is increasing transiently, only it’s occurring faster than what an fMRI can capture? We’ve recently started a collaboration with Professor Emily Stephen that involves using new statistical approaches to neuroimaging data to better understand these fast changes in brain activation during speech listening, and hopefully this will push the time-based limits of what fMRI technology can measure in terms of changes in the brain’s functional connectivity.

Rebecca Belisle, a PhD student in the lab of Professor Tyler Perrachione, simulates a study wherein a participant receives non-invasive brain stimulation (known as transcranial direct current stimulation or tDCS) while performing a speech and processing task.

How did you become so interested with the intersection of neuroscience and spoken language?

Science wasn’t the plan originally. My first year in college I thought I was going to pursue international relations. I liked learning languages, and I figured I might go work for the foreign service so I could travel, meet interesting people, and represent the United States abroad. But then I met other people who wanted to work in the political sphere and I realized that I’m not a politics kind of person, so I pivoted to linguistics. I got a work study job in a lab that used brain imaging to study second language learning, and I became captivated by the complexity of the brain and the challenges inherent in studying it. I was also drawn to the brain images because they’re just so beautiful.

Let’s talk now about your life outside the lab. What are your favorite activities or hobbies?

Because I love my work, for a long time I was mainly invested in that, but then a prospective graduate student asked me about my hobbies outside of science and I was like—oops—I don’t have any! So I chose that moment to seek out a new hobby and I ended up with bird photography. It’s perfect because I cannot take pictures of birds from my lab, I have to go out into the world, and it’s faraway places like Hawaii and Australia that are the most fun for photographing birds.

What is your favorite book?

I really like The Picture of Dorian Gray. The characters are compelling, and each is reprehensible in their own way. And I love Oscar Wilde’s prose. The language is so poetic, even when the story gets a little bit cringey.

What is your most desired superpower?

I have a great one that’s simultaneously very lame and quite impressive because no one has ever, ever thought of it before. I wish that my superpower was to always be exactly on time for public transportation. I want to always arrive at the bus stop when the bus arrives, and to arrive at the airport when they call boarding for my flight. It would remove so much stress!