Date published: 1/9/2013

What makes us distinctly human? The answer lies within the 100 billion neurons that make one of the most mysterious and complex objects in nature: the human brain. My research focuses on two questions addressing the most characterizing aspects of being human: (a) What is the relationship (if any) tying language and thought? and (b) What is consciousness and how is it lost and recovered after severe brain injury?

What makes us distinctly human?  The answer lies within the 100 billion neurons that make one of the most mysterious and complex objects in nature: the human brain.  My research focuses on two questions addressing the most characterizing aspects of being human: (a) What is the relationship (if any) tying language and thought? and (b)What is consciousness and how is it lost and recovered after severe brain injury?

What is the relationship between language and thought?

Does language make us special?  One of the most striking features of human cognition is the ability to generate an infinite number of ideas by combining a finite set of elements according to structure-dependent principles.  This ability is most clearly displayed in language, but also characterizes several other aspects of human cognition such as logical inference, mental arithmetic, and music cognition.  Is it because we have language that we have developed the ability to comprehend and employ "syntax" in virtually any domain?  Is the structure of natural language the scaffolding upon which other forms of high-level cognition have been built?

To date, my research suggests that the neural mechanisms of natural language are not sufficient to process and manipulate structure-dependent statements in logic or algebra, pointing at a remarkable dissociation between language and other domains of thought.  (For more information, you can see a recent Huffington Post report about this research.)

How does consciousness arise from the interplay of billions of neurons, and how is it lost and recovered after severe brain injury (Coma, Vegetative State, Minimally Conscious State)?

How do we ever know that someone, other than ourselves, is conscious?  Philosophical considerations aside, this issue is at the heart of one of the most challenging and least understood conditions of the human brain: the Vegetative State.  This is a condition in which, after severe brain injury, patients are awake but not aware.  In my research, I focus on brain processing and consciousness in these patients.

So far, we have found that a remarkable amount of brain function can be retained even after severe brain injury, and, in some cases, patients that appear to be unconscious according to traditional clinical testing can be shown to be conscious on the basis of their brain activation.  Most recently, this research has started addressing, from a quantitative point of view, what are the differences in terms of functional architecture between a conscious and an unconscious brain.  (You can see more about this research in Discover Magazine.)

My path to these questions has been a winding one.  After graduating in economics at Bocconi University, in Milan, Italy, I decided that the beautiful equations of economic theory were not sufficient to capture the complexity of human thought.  I thus resolved to shift gears and pursue a PhD in cognitive psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, where I focused on how individuals employ information to make decisions and, in particular, on the neural substrate of decision making.  Before arriving at UCLA, where I am currently an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department, with a joint appointment in Neurosurgery, I spent three years in Cambridge, UK, working on the neural fingerprint of consciousness.  Today, my lab is mainly focused on using functional and structural neuroimaging—and particularly Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)—to address these two questions.

If I've made you curious enough, please see my lab's website.

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