Katerina Kandylaki: The Neurobiology of Rhythm

Katerina Kandylaki, researcher (and dance teacher), is studying how the brain uses rhythm to process language.

The road to FPN

Katerina comes from the island of Crete, Greece and did her undergraduate programme in Athens in Greek philology and linguistics. After that she did a master’s programme in Language Science and Technology, in Saarbrücken, Germany, in order to gain more knowledge of applied linguistics. An interest was sparked in language processing, not only from a computational perspective, but also the human perspective. She was interested to find out if the brain processes language like computational algorithms. This interest led her to a PhD project in Neurobiology of Language at the Philipps-University of Marburg, also in Germany.

Ever since starting her master thesis, she discovered her love for research. In the last stages of her PhD she met Tobias Reichenbach (Imperial College London), who offered her a post doc position to work in London at the Department of Bioengineering. In her second year of post doc, she applied for the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions with FPN’s Prof. dr. Sonja Kotz of the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience (FPN).

The NEurobiology of RHYthm: effects of MUSical expertise on natural speech comprehension [NERHYMUS]

Katerina had the idea of combining research on music perception and language perception. She met Sonja Kotz (NP&PP) at a summer school and they soon began working together to further adapt and refine Katerina’s idea for the MSCA application. “I really wanted to work with her. I didn’t just go for the professionally competent people, but also those who are kind to work with”. Together with Sonja she shaped her proposal so that she could make full use of the extensive research infrastructure at Maastricht University.

There are theories that state that the brain uses similar resources to process similar signals. The idea is that music and speech are both auditory signals, so they are possibly processed by the same auditory pathways, and use the same/very similar brain mechanisms. One of these mechanisms is rhythm; there’s not only rhythm in music, but also in speech. For example: a poem might have a certain meter, a regular/distinct rhythm. These rhythms also occur in normal speech, albeit less regular. Rhythm is a mechanism to make speech catchier, sound better, and easier to process in the brain. Many advertisement spots play with the rhythm of language to create a slogan that sticks to memory and therefore people might be more likely to buy the product.

Katerina want to study if musical expertise may be able to benefit language skills, and more specifically to test how the rhythm of language is comprehended. She will do this by studying musicians and non-musicians. She will measure them with EEG and fMRI to register the time-path and location of processing the rhythm of speech in the brain. Those results will show if there is a difference between non-musicians and musicians.

The experiment consists of participants listening to stories or poems for comprehension. In her data analysis, Katerina matches the beats of the speech (the language rhythm) with the brain activation. The activation can be measured by registering the deoxygenation of neurons in the brain. If the oxygen has been used by a neuron, this means that it has been activated.

Thom Frijns

Looking ahead

These results could mean that in future musical training can be used in order to develop general auditory skills that can help your language processing. An example would be creating better therapies for rehabilitation in patients who have suffer from aphasia, after stroke or not. The method would be to try and get patient in a certain rhythm to produce the correct language output.

This kind of therapy could also be used as training for children that have difficulty learning language. When young children in kindergarten start to sing, they also start to clap, they feel the rhythm and that helps them learn the language. Katerina, as part of this project, would also like to go to schools and help them understand what rhythm is and what it can mean for speech.

But first: establishing the knowledge.