He Said/She Said: Understanding How Sex Affects Language
Understanding how men and women communicate is an age-old question—legions of books have been written on the subject. (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, anyone?) But Michael Ullman, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist at Georgetown University Medical Center, is studying the fundamental differences in boys and girls’ brains that impact how they hear and memorize language, and ultimately, how they understand and process language in the brain.
This research, according to Ullman, is beginning to lead to a better understanding of language and language disorders in children—especially disorders such as autism.
“We are beginning to uncover how understanding language disorders may lead us to specific predictions,” he says, “particularly about possible drug or other interventions that we otherwise would be unlikely to make.”
Ullman’s lab studies the biologic basis of language. “A hypothesis we’ve been developing and testing over the past 10 years or so is that humans have two brain systems that help us learn language,” he says. “Declarative memory, which is used for learning arbitrary bits of information about the world, helps us learn words.”
And procedural memory helps us learn grammar, he continues. But instead of the grammar taught in school, procedural memory underlies the learning of motor skills as well as what language rules and structures you learn without even realizing it, as a child. “Like riding a bicycle, you don’t seem to have access to how you gained this knowledge,” he says.
Ullman and his colleagues are now testing how each of these memory systems and two types of language abilities are impacted by disorders such as autism. “Autism seems to affect the procedural memory system, resulting in motor and grammar impairments, but in comparison leaves words relatively unaffected, at least in those with higher-functioning autism,” he says. Indeed, in a recent study, he and his colleagues found that children with high-functioning autism were faster than typically developing children at using words, and are now examining whether similar patterns may hold in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia.
Ullman is one of the multidisciplinary investigators working at GUMC’s Center for Sex Differences (CSD), which studies how the sex of an individual impacts his or her health, aging and disease.
At CSD, he studies differences in the brains of boys and girls, including in autism and other disorders. “You may have heard, for instance, that females have better verbal memories than men. This actually seems to depend on declarative memory, which may be functioning better in females than in males.”
Women’s ability to memorize words better than men is partially attributed to estrogen levels, but Ullman’s research is helping explain why declarative memory is more pronounced in women.
In several studies, Ullman found that women tend to store, in lexical/declarative memory, complex linguistic forms that men normally compute on-line in the grammatical/procedural system.
“With better declarative memory, women may also be memorizing more complex bits of language, such as ‘the cat is on the couch,’ whereas men would tend to put these words together using the grammar system.
“So it could be that boys and girls are processing a lot of language in different parts of the brain in different ways. We’ve been testing this idea for several years with a variety of techniques – including neuroimaging and behavioral methods.”
The brain basis of language is a doorway that can lead in many directions. Ullman’s current research seeks to determine whether girls with specific language impairments go undiagnosed because they are better than boys at compensating with the unaffected part of the brain. This might change the calculation that conditions such as autism are more prevalent among boys than girls, and result in better methods of screening and therapy.
By Frank Reider, GUMC Communications