Dr. Michal Ben-Shachar is a Lecturer in the English Department and a member of the Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, where she is the Head of the Neurolinguistics Lab. She completed her Ph.D. at Tel-Aviv University and conducted postdoctoral research at Stanford University.
Research conducted in Ben-Shachar’s lab focuses on the development of language systems in children and adults. This is done by mapping changes in the language pathways of healthy and impaired speakers and relating those to changes in specific linguistic skills.
Their research program has three overarching aims: (a) to understand the functionality implemented by different segments of the language pathways; (b) to identify subtypes within heterogenous populations of language impairments (e.g. specific language impairments, such as stuttering); and (c) to predict the effectiveness of specific intervention methods based on individual profiles using psycholinguistic, functional and anatomical measures.
Developmental stuttering has both linguistic and motor manifestations that severely limit communicative and social functioning in affected children and adults.
Together with Dr. Ofer Amir and Dr. Ruth Ezrati-Vinacour from Tel-AvivUniversity’s School of Communication Disorders, Ben-Shachar and her group study language and motor pathways in adult individuals who stutter. They use diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to quantify anatomical properties of individually defined white matter pathways.
In addition, they assess linguistic performance on a wide array of cognitive tasks, including morphological, working memory and motor learning tasks. Ben-Shachar and her team use these brain and cognitive measures to characterize the relationship between specific pathways and cognitive skills. They plan to extend these methods to predict the effectiveness of available intervention methods (e.g. delayed auditory feedback).
Knowledge construction and storage in modern society relies mostly on print. However, in some countries a large percentage of the population is illiterate. Because reading is an essential skill for communication and employment in modern society, it is important to facilitate reading acquisition in an illiterate adult population.
Furthermore, reading acquisition in such a population provides an unusual window into adult plasticity of the reading pathways. In collaboration with Dr. Michal Shleifer (Levinsky College of Education) and Prof. Bella Kutik (David Yellin Academic College of Education), Ben-Shachar and her team study cortical changes in illiterate adult Ethiopian immigrants to Israel who undergo specialized literacy programs.
Using DTI and fMRI, they measure the impact of learning to read on the anatomical and functional properties of the language pathways. In addition, they examine changes in cognitive skills including phonology, morphology, memory and perceptual abilities following this training program.
The ability to extract structural regularities from words and sentences continues to develop throughout the school years.
In Ben-Shachar’s lab, the group uses fMRI to measure changes in cortical response to complex linguistic structure, and DTI coupled with psycholinguistic methods to relate white matter properties to specific linguistic processes.
They plan to further compare these measures among children with identified subtypes of specific language impairments and typically developing children to better understand the roles of specific pathways in linguistically defined structural processes.
Ben-Shachar and her lab are planning to collaborate with the unique MEG facility at the Gonda Brain Research Center. By combining MEG and DTI data, they intend to study the dynamics of functional and anatomical connectivity during training and learning, in both healthy and language-impaired populations.