Cognitive neuroscience

Research Program

Neuroscience

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Institut de Neurociències de la UB (UBNeuro)

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Our research group carries out its research at the crossroads of cognitive psychology and the neurosciences. Our main focus are the cognitive mechanisms in the brain, especially those that involve attention, auditory and language perception, or how music and emotions are processed. We explore what occurs in these mechanisms in cases of neurodevelopment or mental health disorders such as dyslexia, autism, attention deficit disorder or schizophrenia.

One of our principal research areas at present focuses on how the brain represents speech sounds in order to induce auditory perception. In particular, we are interested in establishing the mechanisms by which the brain extracts patterns of implicit regularity in the acoustic environment to anticipate future sensory events, leading to what is known as predictive perception.

Our group has been recognised as a consolidated group and financed by the Government of Catalonia since 2003 (current code: SGR2017-974). We are a member of the Institute of Neurosciences of the University of Barcelona and our coordinator, Dr Carles Escera, received the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA Acadèmia) Award in 2010 and 2015.

Research lines

  1. Sensory adaptation and prediction errors in the hierarchically-organised auditory system.
  2. Predictive processes in sensorimotor interactions.
  3. Brain generators of the frequency-following response.
  4. Encoding of speech sounds in newborn babies: the frequency-following response as a biomarker for neurocognitive development.
  5. Functional significance of genetic differences in speech sound encoding.
  6. Numerical cognition and mathematics anxiety.

Scientific objectives

  1. To unravel the neural mechanisms of the auditory system which enable it to decipher the acoustic environment and, particularly, speech. We focus on both sensory adaptation and prediction errors, and how these interact with the motor and other cognitive systems at multiple levels throughout the hierarchically-organised auditory system. We also explore the genetic determinants of such mechanisms.
  2. To characterise the auditory frequency-following response (FFR) in neonates in order to gain insight into how this population perceive speech sounds. Our aim is to identify the environmental, genetic, metabolic and developmental factors of the auditory system (measured by neuroimaging) that determine this response. Our ultimate research goal is to establish a risk prediction biomarker that could be used following the universal newborn hearing screening to detect neurocognitive impairment risks and allow preventive measures, such as music enrichment programmes, to be instigated in at-risk children.

Area/Field of expertise

The Cognitive Neuroscience Group carries out its research at the intersection of two research areas: Psychology and Neurosciences. More specifically, our fields of expertise include psychophysiology, neuropsychology, psychogenetics, neurogenetics and neurophysiology. We have extensive experience in the use of electroencephalography (EEG) techniques with numerous international publications on subjects such as EEG time-frequency analysis, brain synchronisation and oscillation analysis and evoked potentials (EPs), including the mismatch negativity (MMN) and the frequency-following response (FFR). We have also gained considerable experience in magnetoencephalography (MEG) and use psychophysical, neuroimaging and genetic techniques in both healthy volunteers and patient populations in neurology, psychiatry and especially developmental disorders.

Primary research contributions: 1) Evidence that the newborn brain can extract abstract relationships between auditory stimuli in what has been called "primitive intelligence" in audition (Eur J Neurosci 2005); 2) Evidence that individuals with developmental stuttering have a blurred neuronal speech sound representation (Neurology 2005); 3) Evidence that the ability to produce the sounds of a second language is related to the brain's ability to perceive mother tongue sounds (PNAS 2008); 4) More recently, we have demonstrated the involvement of the serotonin transporter gene in accurate speech encoding (J Neurosci 2017); and 5) Discovered that children with autism spectrum disorder tend to increase, rather than suppress, their subcortical neural responses to repetitive stimulation which would explain their sensory hypersensitivity (Biol Psychol 2020).

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Theses

  • Motor-auditory interaction: a window towards associative and predictive processing
    Institution
    UNIVERSIDAD DE BARCELONA
    16/12/2019
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News

  • Can a newborn’s brain discriminate speech sounds?

    A study by the Institut de Recerca Sant Joan de Déu shows newborns do not fully distinguish different vocal sounds. Researchers created a new methodology to record the neural encoding for these sounds, published in the Nature's open-access journal Scientific Reports.

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