University of Cambridge
Centre for Speech, Language and the Brain

Centre for Speech, Language and the Brain

Department of Psychology

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Welcome to the CSLB

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The Centre for Speech, Language and the Brain, headed by Professor Lorraine K Tyler, is part of the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge. Our interdisciplinary research covers a wide range of issues in the cognitive neuroscience of language, object processing, semantics, the ageing brain and cognition. We integrate behavioural experimental and neuroimaging studies on healthy people, together with similar research on brain-damaged patients.

Postgraduate students

The CSLB welcomes applications from postgraduate students for 2015 entry.

Given the interdisciplinary nature of our research, we particularly welcome applicants with a background in scientific computing, statistics, machine learning and/or signal processing methods. For more information click here.

News from the CSLB

  • 12 May 2016

    Aging affects test-taking, not language

    A study published today in the Journal of Neuroscience has found that the ability to understand language could be much better preserved into old age than previously thought. Scientists from the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) scanned participants during testing and found the areas of the brain responsible for language performed just as well in older adults as in younger ones. The research suggests that increased neural activation in the frontal brain regions of older adults reflects differences in the way they respond to the demands of the task compared with younger adults, rather than any difference in language processing itself. “These findings suggest our ability to understand language is remarkably preserved well into old age, and it's not through some trick of the mind, or reorganization of the brain,” says co-author Professor Lorraine K. Tyler, who leads Cam-CAN. “Instead, it's through the continued functioning of a well-used language processing machine common to all humans.” Professor Tyler says cognitive neuroscientists attempting to explain how the mind and brain work typically approach the question with tasks designed to measure particular cognitive abilities, such as memory or language. However, it's rarely as simple as that, she says, and tasks never end up measuring only one thing.

    “Scientists claim that they are studying language, when really they are studying language + your motivation to do well + your understanding of the instructions + your ability to focus, and so on,” says lead author Dr Karen Campbell. “These poorly defined tasks become even more problematic when it comes to studying the older brain, because older adults sometimes show increased neural activation in frontal brain regions, which is thought to reflect a change in how older brains carry out a given cognitive function. However, this extra activation may simply reflect differences in how young and older adults respond to the demands of the task.” Campbell and her Cam-CAN colleagues tried to isolate the effect of the testing by scanning 111 participants aged 22-87 using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they either passively listened to sentences or decided if the sentences were grammatical or not. The researchers found that simply listening to and comprehending language, as we do in everyday life, “lights up” brain networks responsible for hearing and language, whereas performing a cognitive task with the same sentences leads to the additional activation of several task-related networks. Age had no effect on the language network itself, but it did affect this network’s ability to “talk with” (or its functional connectivity to) other task-related networks.

    The published article in the journal Journal of Neuroscience can be found here.

    A news feature by Cambridge University about this research is here.

  • Halloween 2015!

    Why are we more scared when we’re children? (BBSRC)

    BNA Bulletin Spring 2015 When we’re little kiddies almost anything from clowns to your big brother telling you the world is going to end tomorrow can freak us out. Ok, clowns are scary all the time, but in general as we age it takes more to get the fear factor flowing. Why?

    Whilst investigating how our brain functions change as we age, researchers may have stumbled across the answer – distraction. As a part of a suite of experiments, scientists at the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) showed 218 subjects aged 18-88 a scary thriller by master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, called ‘Bang! You’re Dead’, where child could accidentally shoot someone dead at any moment (see video below to see the research in action) while using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure their brain activity.


    Younger subjects’ brains tended showed similar responses at similar points in the programme. But in older people this similarity tended to disappear – their thought processes became more idiosyncratic, possibly because they were more distracted. The BBSRC-funded research suggests our ability to respond to everyday events differs with age, most likely due to altered patterns of attention.

    Check out Arran Frood's piece on spine-chilling science here.

  • 27 October 2015

    New review paper on semantic processing

    A new paper by Alex Clarke and Lorraine K. Tyler has just been published in Trends in Cognitive Science. This paper entitled “Understanding what we see: How we derive meaning from vision” describes a decade of research on object processing which charts the dynamic transformations from early perceptual representations through to understanding the meaning of an object. It goes beyond vision and argues that different kinds of semantic representations are developed over time, from early categorical [animals, tools] representations in the fusiform to object-specific [dog, hammer] representations in the perirhinal cortex. In doing so, it integrates models of vision with a feature-based cognitive model of semantics, and finds that feature-based models of object meaning provide a unifying set of principles which account for the different types of semantic representations of objects that evolve over time along the ventral stream.

    The published article can be found here.

  • 17 August 2015

    Young minds think alike - and older people are more distractible

    A Cam-CAN study published today in the journal Neurobiology of Aging found that older people tended to be more easily distracted than younger adults. Age is believed to change the way our brains respond and how its networks interact, but studies looking at these changes tend to use very artificial experiments, with basic stimuli. To try to understand how we respond to complex, life-like stimuli, Cam-CAN showed 218 subjects aged 18-88 an edited version of an episode from the Hitchcock TV series while using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure their brain activity. Our research team found a surprising degree of similarity in the thought patterns amongst the younger subjects – their brains tended to ‘light up’ in similar ways and at similar points in the programme. However, in older subjects, this similarity tended to disappear and their thought processes became more idiosyncratic, suggesting that they were responding differently to what they were watching and were possibly more distracted. The greatest differences were seen in the ‘higher order’ regions at the front of the brain, which are responsible for controlling attention (the superior frontal lobe and the intraparietal sulcus) and language processing (the bilateral middle temporal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus). Our findings suggest that our ability to respond to everyday events in the environment differs with age, possibly due to altered patterns of attention.

    The full news item can be found here, with an additional feature by the BBSRC here. The published article in the journal Neurobiology of Aging can be found here.

  • 7 July 2015

    Professor Tyler scoops second Advanced Investigator Award

    Professor Lorraine K. Tyler, Department of Psychology, has been awarded her second Advanced Investigator Award by the European Research Council. The prestigious ERC Advanced Grant funds exceptional established research leaders to pursue ground-breaking, high-risk projects that open new direction in their research fields. She is the only individual from the University of Cambridge to be awarded a second Advanced Grant under the 2014 call, and has the honour of being the second ever holder of two Advanced Grants within the University. The over €2million fund will support Professor Tyler’s LANGDYN (Language dynamics: a neurocognitive approach to incremental interpretation) research programme until October 2020. Her research aims to understand the complex processes and representations that support the transition of spoken language from auditory input to a meaningful interpretation, and the neurobiological systems in which they are instantiated. The novel research programme will combine advanced techniques from neuroimaging with new developments in multivariate statistics and computational linguistics to determine the nature of the processes involved in the transition from early perceptual analyses through different representational states to the development of a meaningful representation of an utterance, the dynamic spatio-temporal relationship between these processes, and their evolution over time.

  • 20 April 2015

    Professor Tyler featured in BNA Bulletin

    BNA Bulletin Spring 2015 "Through hearing, vision and our other senses, we constantly receive sensory inputs from the outside world. One of the brain's most remarkable properties is its ability to process and make sense of this information - to know that a series of auditory stimuli is someone asking us if we want a cup of tea, or that a complex visual input is a picture of a dog. Focusing on language and visual recognition of objects, Professor Lorraine K. Tyler in Cambridge is identifying some of the neural mechanisms underlying these remarkable feats."

    Read the full article here. Reproduced with kind permission of the British Neuroscience Association.

  • Old news

Major themes cross-cutting our research

Neurobiology of spoken language in healthy and brain-damaged populations:

  • Working with healthy people, we develop accounts of the functional relationships between the anatomically distributed regions involved in language processing.
  • Working with brain-damaged patients (in both the acute and chronic phases), we investigate issues of reorganisation and plasticity following brain damage.
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Neurocognitive accounts of conceptual knowledge:

  • How is meaning represented and processed in the mind and brain? We develop cognitive models of conceptual knowledge and investigate how conceptual knowledge is processed in both the healthy and damaged system.
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The ageing brain and cognition:

  • We study language function in normal healthy ageing to determine the relationship between preserved function and neural change.
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Funding initiatives

  • ERC Advanced Investigator grant 2 (2015-2020)

    ERCAn ERC Advanced Investigator Grant has been awarded to Professor Lorraine K Tyler. This 5-year programme will support her research programme 'LANGDYN', investigating how the brain processes spoken language.

  • Study in brain ageing 2010-2015 (Cam-CAN)

    Cam-CANResearch efforts to understand how the brain changes with age, from early to late adulthood, have been given a major boost by a new £5M grant from the BBSRC. The funding was awarded to a team of scientists from the University of Cambridge Departments of Psychology, Public Health, Psychiatry, Clinical Neurosciences and Engineering, and from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. This team, working as the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN), brought together world-leading expertise and cutting edge methods to understand how brain ageing in healthy people affects abilities like language, attention, emotion and memory.

    The ageing process does not have a uniform effect across the brain. Older people often struggle, for example, to recall the right word in a conversation, but can continue to expand their vocabulary throughout old age. Understanding what structures in the brain account for this variation is a crucial first step in allowing more people to retain a range of mental abilities throughout their lives. Professor Lorraine K Tyler, who heads the research team, said "Our mental abilities don't suddenly start to decline as we enter retirement. In fact, many are retained right into our eighties and we are often too quick to attribute normal lapses like forgetfulness to the effects of age. Understanding the complexities of how ageing affects the brain will be crucial for older people to be able to live fulfilled lives and contribute fully to society."

    The study is unique in recruiting 3000 people aged 18-88 years, drawn from the general population, to create a library of information on how healthy brain ageing affects mental abilities to different degrees. Not only does this help identify older people who might be helped by therapies, but it also provides a lasting resource for future researchers to draw on. The research will establish a virtual "brain and behaviour" database which will hold behavioural, MRI and MEG data from a population-representative sample of 700 healthy adults. This is be a valuable, open-access resource for scientists interested in ageing, and a basis for longitudinal study of how our brain and our cognitive abilities change as we grow older.

  • ERC Advanced Investigator grant 1 (2010-2015)

    ERCAn ERC Advanced Investigator Grant was awarded to Professor Lorraine K Tyler. This 5-year programme supported her research programme 'PERCEPCON', investigating how the brain processes visual inputs as meaningful objects.

More about us

The Centre is directed by Professor Lorraine K Tyler, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Fellow of Clare College. Researchers at the CSLB come from various academic fields such as cognitive psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, cognitive science, and computer science. We collaborate with scientists at the Department of Psychiatry, the Department of Clinical Neurosciences, the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre, Johns Hopkins University, Pomona College, and University Hospital Basel.

The Centre, formerly called the Centre for Speech and Language, is/has recently been funded by grants from