Used book sparks successful research career

Professor Arthur Wingfield recognized for research connecting aging, hearing loss and memory

Neuroscience professor Arthur Wingfield says a 10-cent book on bioengineering from a discount shop jump-started his career. The leather-like cover with gold letters drew him in; the section on speech as an engineering problem gave focus to his path.

A world leader in investigating changes in language as we age, Wingfield's most recent accolade is the 2010 Baltes Distinguished Research Achievement Award for his outstanding contributions to understanding adult development and aging, specifically how hearing loss affects memory. Wingfield, the Nancy Lurie Marks Professor of Neuroscience, began his collegiate studies as an electrical engineering major at the University of Connecticut. He said he was fascinated when he learned that there were 150 controllable muscles inside the tongue alone and soon after began taking courses on perception, learning and speech disorders.

Wingfield's first exposure to research in language took place as an undergraduate, when he answered an ad for volunteers for early studies of synthetic speech being conducted in collaboration with the Haskins Laboratories in New Haven. He earned the then-princely sum of 50 cents an hour listening to a computer make speech-like sounds and then attempting to identify them.

He received a joint master's degree in speech pathology and audiology from Northwestern University, did stint in the army and headed to Oxford University in England to work on his doctorate, conducting research how the brain was organized for language. At the time, functional brain imaging was not even on the horizon and Wingfield studied this question by looking at lesion data acquired from stroke victims with damaged brain tissue, using surgeons' reports and post mortem data.

"In a very sort of 19th-century way, I was inferring the function of a particular brain area by looking at what functions were lost when the area was damaged," said Wingfield.

He stayed on at the prestigious Medical Research Council, the U.K.'s version of the National Institutes of Health, in a psycholinguistics unit looking at neurological issues in speech. One afternoon, six years into his post, Wingfield was having tea when a visiting American professor on sabbatical from the University of Delaware invited him to take his place in the U.S. for a year. The professor explained that a Dutch psychologist who had been tapped for the spot was unable to make it at the last minute.

Wingfield took him on up the offer and went back to the States, intending to stay for one year. During that time a friend mentioned an opening in the Brandeis psychology department. Decades later, Wingfield admits to having had the occasional wave of wanderlust for a change of scenery from Brandeis, but he says those urges have been quickly quelled as there is always something new and exciting happening here. The development of neuroscience and the related building of the Volen National Center for Complex Systems at Brandeis is just one example.

Wingfield's ongoing research examines the connections between aging, hearing loss, and memory. It's not surprising, he explains, that if someone has to struggle to hear through a bad cell phone connection or traffic noise, it takes a lot effort. In an older adult, he says, this effort can be continuous as the degree of effort and resources that are required in the perceptual end have a downstream effect on memory. In other words, efforts that would have been used for encoding something in memory are instead exhausted to understand a sentence, many of which have complicated syntax.

Much of the problem can be alleviated with a well-fitted hearing aid, but with many older adults hearing is not just a matter of peripheral acuity, Wingfield says. There are many higher-level problems such as distinguishing pitches and frequencies, and temporal discrimination that affect speech perception, especially in noisy surroundings.

While a hearing aid can improve performance, it won't bring hearing up to the level of a young person, which is why so many people who get hearing aids are disappointed, he said; when speech is hard to understand and sounds garbled, sometimes a hearing aid will just make it all louder.

Wingfield says that thinning hair cells in the cochlea, a snail-shell shaped structure the size of tic-tac in the inner ear, is usually the source of the hearing loss. While a number of creatures, like sharks, grow new hair cells, human do not.  The best that we can do, other than hearing aids, which are very sophisticated amplifiers, says Wingfield, is cochlear implants.

Currently Wingfield is also collaborating with Dr. Murry Grossman, professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a way of looking at metabolic activity in the brain.

Using a computer to time-compress speech, brain activity is studied as it processes rapid speech or complicated grammar. In the younger person, says Wingfield, activity occurs mainly in the left hemisphere, the area for language. If speech is significantly more complicated in the younger adult, activity is then picked up in the right hemisphere. In the older adult, however, Wingfield says this pattern appears a lot sooner, with simpler language, and when working memory is required.

"I am so impressed by Art's modesty in the face of his extraordinary success in these areas," said Grossman." He's helping those with hearing and speech difficulties while advancing our scholarly and scientific understanding of the field in creative ways."

In addition to his success, adds Grossman, "his students love him."

Once a student of Wingfield's, Tepring Piquado, is now a postdoctoral scholar in the Auditory & Language Neuroscience Lab at the University of California's Department of Cognitive Sciences. Piquado first rotated through Wingfield's Brandeis lab in 2005, took his neuropsychology course in the spring of 2006 and later joined the lab that summer. Together they've published two articles, including "Pupillometry as a measure of cognitive effort in younger and older adults."

"I admire Art's ability to mentor," says Piquado. "He really took the time to figure out my personality and even asked me how I wanted to learn."

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