LEAP NIRS Brain Imaging Lab at Utah State University

NIRS in progress, a smiling child and staff

Utah State University recently acquired an innovative brain imaging technology, known as functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS). This new technology is very exciting because it makes it possible to obtain live images of the brain while it is working. Under the direction of Dr. Ron Gillam, the LEAP (Language, Education, and Auditory Processing) NIRS Brain Imaging Lab has been established in the Emma Eccles Jones Early Childhood Education and Research Center.

An interdisciplinary team of USU-based researchers with expertise in psychology, early childhood education, speech-language pathology, deaf education and audiology will be using the new equipment to conduct both basic and applied research to advance what is known about hearing, speech, language, and literacy abilities in children.

The Hitachi ETG-4000 optical topography system is state-of-the-art equipment that captures and measures hemoglobin levels while the brain functions. The system works by transmitting near-infrared light into the head and collecting the reflected information from the cerebral cortex. It provides a graphic display and quantitative measures of brain activation patterns. The optical imaging system has the advantage over more common methods (e.g., fMRI) in that it can be used to study the neural responses of behaviorally active infants, children and adults. This system is portable, non-invasive and much less expensive than fMRI or PET.

Researchers around the world are beginning to use optical imaging to investigate language processing, speech perception, memory, and reading in children and adults. Early results are very exciting and demonstrate that optical imaging is sufficiently sensitive to assess the neural basis of listening, speaking, reading, and writing across the life-span. View a demonstration of the equipment being used in research.

The Hitachi ETG-4000 creates images of neural functioning by measuring hemoglobin levels in the brain during functional activity. Changes in hemoglobin levels result from changes in cerebral activation. The system beams near-infrared light into the head and picks up the reflected light from the cerebral cortex. This measurement displays changes in cerebral activation at very precise time points.

Plans are currently underway to use the equipment in doing research to:

  • identify the neural pathways that contribute to language and literacy learning in children with language impairments and reading difficulties
  • demonstrate changes in language-specific neural networks after cochlear implantation and auditory learning education
  • determine the points in neural development when children are most likely to benefit from communication and educational treatments
  • learn about the sequence and duration of speech, language, and literacy training programs that result in the fastest neural change
  • investigate of the brain basis of bilingualism (ASL-English, Spanish-English)