The human brain is a highly complex, multilayered organ composed of many billions of neurons, organized into complicated interconnecting neural networks. Typically, each neuron is connected to tens of thousands of other neurons through connections called synapses. Electrochemical signals that are passed between neurons through these synapses allow them to communicate.
When something is abnormal or broken, it can lead to a range of devastating neurological and psychiatric brain disorders. Today, according to recent reports, around two billion people suffer from brain-related disorders, including developmental problems (autism and ADHD, for example), acquired neuropsychological disorders, aphasia (language problems), amnesia (memory problems), dyslexia (reading problems), neurological disorders (epilepsy), psychiatric problems and neurodegenerative disorders.
Understanding these diseases and disorders can be highly complicated – because the brain is complicated.
But at Tel Aviv University’s Sagol School of Neuroscience, “We are on the verge of a revolution in brain research,” said Prof. Uri Ashery, a member of TAU’s Department of Neurobiology.
The Sagol School, founded by Sami and Tova Sagol, is the first and only one of its kind in Israel in terms of interdisciplinary scope and breadth. It serves as the coordinating framework for all TAU teaching and research in the brain sciences.
“We have researchers from all over TAU,” explained Prof. Naama Friedmann, who heads the Sagol School’s newest center, the Cukier, Goldstein-Goren Center for Mind, Cognition and Language, also known as the MiLa Center. Friedmann said the Sagol School’s more than 160 researchers are members of the faculties of life sciences, medicine, social sciences, exact sciences, education, humanities, arts and more.
“Scientists now realize that interdisciplinary dialogue is essential for brain research,” she said.
In her own research, Friedmann focuses on cognitive neuropsychology, including language impairments in individuals after strokes or traumatic brain damage, or in individuals with developmental impairments. In her 18 years at TAU, she has discovered many new types of dyslexia and dysgraphia and followed up these discoveries with studies aimed at the diagnosis and treatment of these language impairments.
For example, Friedmann recently discovered vowel letter dyslexia. Individuals with this impairment can read consonants without error, but when they see vowels, they either put them in the wrong place or omit them. She first discovered this in Hebrew, but later found it could be diagnosed in individuals who speak English, Italian, Turkish and Arabic, too.
It’s a revolutionary discovery.
“This has important implications for understanding the way we read,” Friedmann explained. “It means that we process consonants and vowels separately. This will revolutionize the model for reading.”
Additionally, Friedmann’s team determined that the period from birth to one year old is critical for proper language acquisition. When in 2003, a B1 (thiamine) deficiency in Remedia baby formula led to the deaths of three babies and injuries of two dozen more, Friedmann’s team decided to monitor the impact of this thiamine deficiency on the affected babies over time.
Her team did a wide assessment of the children’s language at age five, and they realized that although their IQs were fine, the syntax of 97% of the children was impaired. Testing was repeated at age eight and again at age 14.
“Because the brain did not develop well in their first year of life, because of the thiamine deficiency, these children missed a critical period for language acquisition, from which they are still struggling,” Friedmann said.
She also ran a study of deaf children with her students Dr. Ronit Szterman and Manar Haddad-Hana comparing those who received hearing aids or cochlear implants in their first year or later.
“What we found is that the children with normal syntax received hearing aids in the first year of their life,” said Friedmann. “If they get hearing aids at two or three years old, it is too late for syntax to develop normally.”
She said when these two studies are taken together, one can understand that the first year is a critical period both for brain development and for language input of the first language. Further, she explained that all three studies were truly multidisciplinary.
“Let’s take the Remedia study: if you want to study the effect of thiamine on language acquisition, you have to have a good base in biochemistry, linguistics, neurology and psychology and know how to assess language acquisition and learning disabilities.”
Friedmann said that in many universities, researchers are doing very interesting things on two sides of the corridor and they don’t know about each other’s work. By working together, “you can do groundbreaking work.”
“I think the world is going toward questions and research that simply cannot be done from within only one discipline,” said Friedmann, who is also the head of the Adi Lautman Interdisciplinary Program for Outstanding Students at TAU.
“Today, big questions can be answered either by collaborations between researchers from various disciplines, as we have in the Sagol School of Neuroscience and the MiLa center at TAU, or by a researcher who has strong bases in several disciplines. Either you can work together or you yourself should be interdisciplinary.”