Research topics

At the Cognitive Brain Research Unit (CBRU), based in University of Helsinki, we address human auditory and crossmodal cognition, as well as their impairments and plasticity. The main research areas are human language and music processes, the development of auditory skills, and the effects of aging on auditory perception.

CBRU was preceded by Cognitive Psychophysiology Research Unit, founded by Prof. Risto Näätänen. The research was focused on two cerebral responses, the mismatch negativity (MMN) and processing negativity (PN), both discovered by Näätänen et al. (1978). The MMN is a change-detection mechanism reflecting cortical sound-discrimination accuracy whereas the PN indicates how the brain selects relevant stimuli for further processing. The MMN has become a popular tool world-wide for cognitive neuroscience, since it can be recorded even from inattentive subjects and applied to a variety groups, including patients, infants, and even foetuses. Already in 2004 it was estimated that there were about 1000 publications in international refereed journals using this brain response.

Read more about MMN discovered by Prof. Näätänen

Speech sound representations and their plasticity in language learning is one of the core areas in our research. We have shown that language-specific memory traces, predominant in the left temporal lobe, operate in an automatic fashion (Näätänen et al., Nature, 1997).

We also address the neural basis of auditory and audiovisual processing underlying reading and reading impairments. Furthermore, we aim to shed light to the impaired neural processing stages of speech and auditory information in dyslexia, autism spectrum, and other language and learning deficits. Our work has indicated that with appropriate intervention programs, dyslexia and language impairments can be alleviated and their neural basis altered (Kujala et al., PNAS, 2001; Pihko et al., Cer. Cor., 2007, Kujala & Näätänen, Progr. Neurobiol., 2010).

During past years, the research in the Brain and Music team has shown that music sounds are processed in the auditory cortex as any other sound but partially by spatially distinct neural networks (Tervaniemi et al., J. Neurosci., 2006). In professional and amateur musicians, these neural networks can represent musically relevant sound information with higher accuracy than in non-musicians (van Zuijen et al., J. Cogn. Neurosci., 2004; Tervaniemi et al., NeuroReport 2006).  Importantly, however, also non-musicians can extract highly complex musical information even when they concentrate on a parallel task outside auditory modality during the brain recordings (Brattico et al., Brain Res., 2006; Leino et al., Brain Res., 2007).

The research on the developmental aspects of audition, memory, and attention is primarily based on event-related potentials and magnetic fields from children, infants, and fetuses. Our studies show that the fetal brain is capable of disentangling sounds with different pitches (Huotilainen et al., NeuroReport, 2004) and that the neonatal brain has high-level cognitive skills related to sound perception (Winkler et al., PNAS, 2003; Kushnerenko et al., Eur. J. Neurosci., 2007; Sambeth et al., Clin. Neurophys., 2008).

In children, the development of skills related to understanding speech and music is of great interest due to the benefits of early detection of possible impairments of hearing abilities. Our current projects aim at understanding the normal development of these abilities.

With ageing, speech perception especially in background noise becomes increasingly difficult even without major alteration in pure-tone audiogram. Our goal is to understand the age-related deterioration in the central auditory system and its impact on auditory processing in everyday life. To this aim, we develop and test objective (attention-independent) electrophysiological indices for the different aspects of central-auditory processing such as discrimination and identification of complex auditory signals, and the duration and capacity of auditory sensory memory. One promising index is the mismatch negativity (MMN; Näätänen & Winkler, Psychol. Bull., 1999; Näätänen, et al. TINS, 2001, Näätänen et al., Brain, 2011 in press). Furthermore, by using these very same indices, we explore the effectiveness of different types of training and practice program, in an attempt at alleviating or cancelling some of the age-related deterioration.

Besides these central research areas, we also investigate the neural basis and plasticity of auditory processing, for instance, phenomena such as auditory memory and primitive intelligence (Näätänen et al., TINS, 2001, Kujala & Näätänen, Progr. Neurobiol., 2010). Furthermore, we determine how auditory training, acquisition of special skills, or extraordinary demands on the auditory system, such as blindness, cause reorganization in the neural substrate of auditory perception (Kujala et al., TINS, 2000). We also constantly strive for improving research paradigms for efficient data acquisition. For example, with the new "multi-feature" paradigm ("Optimum-1"; Näätänen et al., Clin. Neurophysiol., 2004) it is possible to record the MMN for about 5 sound features in the same time in which MMN was acquired with the oddball paradigm for 1-2 features only.

We are working to enrich interaction in digital environments by finding new ways of conveying emotional information. Why? To improve human collaboration, decrease misunderstanding, disconnection and loneliness.

Digital systems are not designed to consider emotions. As a result, the tools we have for expressing our emotions online are severely lacking in quality. This in turn inhibits empathy, the mechanisms that allow people to understand each other, connect and collaborate.

The problem is evident in how discussions online easily become unnecessarily heated, in the growing rate of cyberbullying and in the difficulties that distributed teams have in their cooperation.