Assistant Professor Matthew Dye has received a first-in-class research initiative, a $2.6 million, five-year award from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders to conduct a large-scale study examining signed and spoken language outcomes in young deaf adults who received cochlear implants in childhood and now are enrolled at RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
“Early deafness changes the way the brain develops, and our goal is to understand how the brains of these college students function,” said Dye, who leads the Deaf x Laboratory in the Center on Cognition and Language at NTID. “The unique sample of young adults at RIT/NTID, many of whom learned sign language in infancy and use a cochlear implant, affords the possibility of examining how early exposure to American Sign Language influences spoken language outcomes. The majority of these students will vary in terms of whether or not they use their cochlear implant, the age at which they received their cochlear implant and their primary mode of communication, whether its spoken English, sign language or another mode.”
RIT student Sarah Kimbley began her research in the Deaf x lab as an undergraduate. This fall she is a scholar in the Rochester Bridges to the Doctorate program, which selects top graduate students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing and wish to pursue a doctoral degree. On a related project funded by the National Science Foundation, Kimbley, an experimental psychology master’s student from Lakeland, Fla., is working with Dye and research associate Brennan Terhune-Cotter to document temporal sequence processing in deaf children and understand how language acquisition and audition may mediate neurocognitive functions like working memory, executive function and sequence learning.
“Researchers claim deaf children with cochlear implants have a cognitive deficit that is due to a lack of auditory input,” said Kimbley. “However, our research proposes an alternative explanation. Language deprivation has a greater impact than auditory deprivation. In other words, not being exposed to language within the first five years can be harmful for cognitive functioning. We are predicting that our developmental study will show us that language fluency will have an impact while hearing level has little or no impact on cognitive functioning, specifically, temporal sequence processing.”
At the end of the five-year project, Dye expects to have data from more than 500 students—data that he says could also be used to answer questions that they never even intended to ask. He plans to make the data available to other researchers within their network.
“This groundbreaking research is not just about speech, it’s about the power of having language,” added Dye.