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Special interest: language and acquired brain injuries

Elisabeth Ahlsén is professor of neurolinguistics and is investigating the connection between language and brain at the Department of Applied IT. Professor Ahlsén is also the vice chair of the SSKKII research centre, a locus for interdisciplinary research at the nexus between the fields of language, semantics, cognition, communication, information and interaction. The interdisciplinary perspective is vital for Ahlsén's work in neurolinguisitics and it has become an important part of her identity as a researcher.

It is difficult if the technological tool only is providing words like “banana” for example, while words like “I” are missing.

Neurolinguistics = brain + language

“My research area is called neurolinguistics. It concerns language and brain,” says Professor Ahlsén. Much of my work concerns persons with brain damage, where I want to contribute with greater insight into how language and communication work. This pursuit involves both medical aspects – neuro – and behaviour.”

“Im my work I mainly focus on behaviour since it’s relatively unexplored and needs to be better described. Within the area of behavioural sciences there are gaps caused by an unfortunate separation between neuroscience and research on behaviour. Part of the reason for these gaps is that technological progress outpaced theoretical advances and the understanding of brain functions. Many definitions of language and language functions have grown too narrow and it has therefore been difficult to capture the complexity of natural language usage. Technology has, for example, rendered it possible to register activity within different parts of the brain, but there have sometimes been misinterpretations of what activity in a given part of the brain actually means for language and communication. In certain cases, this has resulted in misdiagnoses and irrelevant treatments.”

The interdisciplinary perspective is an important part of Ahlsén's identity as a researcher. Over the span of her academic career, she has worked within many departments of different fields. This has taught her to always think multi-dimensionally. It is the nature of this area of research; you have to be able to mix and match from a variety of disciplines to understand the problem you are investigating, according to Ahlsén.

Working with learning disabilities sparked the interest

“I started my career as a teacher in primary school, where I worked with children who had difficulties learning to read as well as general learning disabilities,” says Elisabeth.

“I felt that I wanted to know more about how reading and writing, as well as language ability in general, work in order to be able to find good learning methods for these children. For that reason, I applied to the speech-language pathology graduate programme, where I became interested in combining neuroscience with language disability research. Back then, it was possible for teachers to become speech therapists in schools, but I decided to pursue broader education in order to learn more about the biomedical perspective on the issue.”

A combination of neuroscience and language disorder research

Already while completing her graduate thesis, Ahlsén knew that she wanted to pursue a research degree. She worked in a clinical setting for a few years, while taking some additional courses, to gain additional experience. She was subsequently accepted to a PhD programme. Here, she balanced her research with work as speech-language pathologist, as well as teaching responsibilities. During this time, Ahlsén moved from Lund to Gothenburg and started work at the city university. She was hardly a stranger to the city. She had earned her teaching degree there, but had completed the rest of her studies in Lund, where she studied education and English. She even managed to earn a bachelor’s degree in the subject before embarking on the graduate programme in speech-language pathology.

Better diagnostic and treatment methods for adults with traumatic brain injuries

“I retained my interest for reading disabilities and dyslexia, but I also developed an interest for adults with traumatic brain injuries and finding better treatment methods for these people,” says Ahlsén. “There are many fascinating and mystifying symptoms that one wants to understand better – and improved diagnosis leads to better treatment methods.”

“When I started working with this, there was almost no one who investigated how language works practically. For example, how you speak during a coffee break, when you call a government agency, or when you shop in a store. Rather, the focus used to be on forming sentences and naming pictures in controlled test environments.”

Are gestures more instinctive than spoken language?

“I’m currently finishing an extensive project about gestures and speech,” says Ahlsén. “I have conducted numerous studies about gestures. If humans, for example, develop aphasia, can they still express themselves by other means than spoken language – is it mainly language or is it the more general ability for self-expression that is disrupted by aphasia? Can they perhaps use gestures, computer tablets or other ways to communicate? Is the capacity to gesture more primary or deeply rooted since since it is reasonable to assume that this ability was developed before spoken language in human evolution? Is a gesture more immediate? Some people with aphasia have difficulties generating single gestures accurately, but are still able to produce pantomime when they are allowed to communicate more intuitively.

The right technological tools may be decisive when a person is developing a language from scratch

“Since 2010, I have been a part of a technical faculty and this is good, since there have always been technical factors involved in my research,” says Ahlsén. “I have conducted several projects in the field with my doctoral students and I also evaluate many applications for research grants that concern communication aides. It may be technical aid for persons with aphasia, autism spectrum disorders or cerebral palsy. In the latter case, the patients are often children who are unable to speak due to movement disabilities while they may retain full mental capacity.”

Many people experience less stress sitting at a machine, practicing and repeating words, compared to having another person sitting next to them trying to help. With a technological solution, you are only limited by your need and will to practice.

“But it is incredibly important that the right technological tools are available when a child is developing a language from scratch since the potential vocabulary is limited to what the aid can provide! It is difficult if one only has access to words like “banana” for example, while words like “I” are missing. The children may also lack a language to argue with other children if relevant words are lacking in the aid they are using to learn to speak. We must try to give the children a natural language and to reduce the number of gaps in their natural language environment.”

Modern technology is much more manageable

Ahlsén explains that aid used to consist of expensive customised programs that demanded a lot of programming and that the equipment was huge and impossible to carry around with you. Today, it is possible to create personalised applications adapted to the needs of the person, all contained in a portable unit such as a cell phone or a computer tablet. This facilitates easier usage for the learners as well as the satisfaction of using technology that everybody else is using.


Interview: Catharina Jerkbrant
Photo: Johan Wingborg


Contact information:

Professor Elisabeth Ahlsén
Department of Applied IT
phone: +46 (0)31-786 1923

Professor Elisabeth Ahlsén

Elisabeth AhlsénElisabeth Ahlsén is professor of neurolinguistics and the interest for the research area started during Elisabeth's work with primary school children and learning disabilities.

Page Manager: Catharina Jerkbrant|Last update: 4/12/2013

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