First Language Shapes Later Processing Patterns In The Brain


By Leanne Louie

Whether you still speak it or not, your first language dictates the way your brain processes languages learned later in life.

In a paper published in Nature Communications in early December, researchers at McGill and the Montreal Neurological Institute showed that children with different first languages had differing brain activation when performing a French language task. Of the three groups of children tested, one group had learned only French since birth. Another had known Chinese as their first language before adoption into French families, whereupon they learned only French and forgot their Chinese. The final group had Chinese as their first language, learning French as a second language around the same time as the adopted children, but retaining their Chinese. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers observed the brains of the children while they identified French pseudo-words, such as vapagne and chansette. Although all groups performed the task equally well, they had differing patterns of brain activation throughout it. The French speakers with no exposure to Chinese had activation in the brain areas normally associated with the processing of language-associated sounds (most prominently, the left inferior frontal gyrus and anterior insula). However, in the brains of the children who had learned Chinese as their first language, additional areas of the brain were activated (particularly the right middle frontal gyrus, left medial frontal cortex, and bilateral superior temporal gyrus), regardless of whether the first language was still spoken.

“These results suggest that exposure to a language early in life affects how the brain processes other languages that you learn later on, even if you stop using that early language,” explained Lara Pierce, a doctoral student at McGill and the first author on the paper. Scientists have long known that early childhood experiences such as being read to and hearing languages can shape long-term brain architecture. However, although early events can dictate neural development, the brain remains an adaptable and plastic organ, able to adjust to what it needs to learn later in life despite its underlying circuitry. Such is made obvious from the high proficiency of all of the children in French, each of the three groups performing the language task with great accuracy despite their different linguistic backgrounds. Thus, it’s clear that having a different first language doesn’t impede the ability to learn a second language— but early language experiences do influence the way the brain might learn and process future languages.

Such research contributes to a growing understanding of both neural development and neuroplasticity, demonstrating the influence that experience and environment have upon the brain. In the future, the scientists are interested in looking more in depth at the influence of early experiences on later language learning. One question of interest is how the results would differ if a first language more similar to French than Chinese, such as English, were to be tested. This would help to clarify how different elements of first languages might influence the learning of second languages. While it provides answers, this study also raises many new questions, paving new paths for future research on the brain.

To read the full article in Nature Communications:

Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski –

Meet MSURJ: Sebastian


Hello MSURJ enthusiasts! My name is Sebastian Andric and I am a Junior Editor on

the MSURJ team. I am currently a first year undergraduate student hoping to get

involved with the research community here at McGill. Although I’m only starting out

my post-secondary academic career, I am interested in pursuing research in either

neuroscience or genetic engineering. Aside from reading and editing research papers,

my interests include traveling, playing piano, listening to music, especially jazz and

hip-hop, and gaming.  I’m looking forward to working with MSURJ and I hope you

all pick up a copy!

Meet MSURJ: Meng

Hello, hello! I’m Meng, one of the co-Editors-in-Chief for the 2015-2016 school year. I am a graduating pharmacology student minoring in economics.

In my free time, I love anything that involves being active, eating and taking Instagram pictures of food. A year ago, I started working at a research lab that focuses on the molecular basis of Alzheimer’s Disease and since then, it’s been quite a wild ride. I’ve learned through a summer submerged in research that there is no end to scientific learning, and that the amount of knowledge gained is directly proportional to self motivation, hard work and a lot of introspection—asking yourself why you are doing something, for instance.

Therefore, this school year, I’ve challenged myself to work as much as a graduate student and to produce as much, if not more data than the graduate students in my laboratory. So far, it has not been an easy journey, but I am anxious to see what a year of hard work will lead to. Ariana, the rest of the MSURJ team, and I have worked extremely hard over the whole summer to completely revamp ourselves, and we cannot wait to see what the future holds!

We’ve been featured!

MSURJ, currently in its 11th year of print, was recently featured by the McGill Tribune as one of the best scientific publications at McGill, with a lovely segment written by Daniel Galef. At this time of the year while all of us here are hard at work putting together our newest volume, this was both a pleasant surprise and an honour.

Volume 11 of MSURJ will be published in March, 2016.

Until then, we, the MSURJ team, would like to thank our readers and contributors for their continued support.

(image: Huffington Post)

Meet MSURJ: Alex

2015-10-19 12.50.08


Hello everyone!

I’m a U2 Computer Science student, and have recently joined MSURJ as an editor. I have research experience in medicine and stem cell therapy, but have more recently developed research interests in computer vision, computer graphics, and human-computer interaction. I am currently looking forward to be performing research with the faculty at the Centre for Intelligent Machines, and also have a number of side projects that I work on at hackathons, as well as on my own time.

Research is one of the only areas where you aren’t working to achieve what someone accomplished yesterday, but rather to discover something new. Being at the front lines of pursuing knowledge and gaining an appreciation of others’ work, is my main inspiration to do research, as well as was the main reason why I chose to join MSURJ this year.
On my own time, I enjoy building on my own programming side projects, watching tv shows, browsing reddit, playing with dogs, and exploring new restaurants. I like travelling around the world and have had the privilege of living in many countries throughout my life so far— though, if I had to call one place my home, it would be Malaysia.

To all science students: it’s never too early or too late to start making an impact! Check out past copies of the journal and submit to us yourself if you think your research deserves to be published!


Meet MSURJ: Aditya

AdityaMohanProfilePicAditya Mohan is a youth leader in STEM from Ottawa, Ontario who has always been keenly interested in science and the potential it holds to make a difference in the world. Over the years, Aditya has participated, and been awarded, in numerous scientific competitions with his work on biofuels, HIV, and cancer research.

In 2012, to help mitigate the issue of costs, Aditya designed a novel Algal Biofuel extraction process that produced industry-grade biofuel at a fraction of its current cost.

Soon after, Aditya began working at a research lab to study the cellular interactions found in chronic diseases such as HIV. His research in molecular immunology allowed him to develop a novel HIV treatment to stimulate the production of anti-viral CD8+ T Cells. This project won many national and regional awards, including the prestigious Canadian Manning Innovation Award.

Aditya’s latest project involves the bioengineering of the common cold virus for applications in cancer treatment. His virus has worked very well in on multiple cancers and holds a lot of potential moving forward. His project has earned him many international and national accolades, including the 1st place award at the International Science and Engineering Fair and the title of National BioGENEius of Canada.

Aside from science, Aditya also pursues a wide array of extracurricular activities, and has competed in and won multiple national competitions for the visual arts and creative writing. He is also an avid basketball player.

Undergraduate Research 101 with MSURJ: A Fond Recap

Just this past week, on a somewhat blustery but clear night, our research journal team did something groundbreaking—we did a workshop on how to get involved with research.

And so, with members and participants huddled up on couches and on the floor of ECOLE’s living room, MSURJ held its first, unexpectedly cozy undergraduate research 101 event. It was a resounding success, for a number of reasons which we would like to believe were absolutely not limited to the number of sofas in that room.

Being an event on a relatively small scale, it began with a number of introductions and hellos, as the team scrambled to set up projectors and speakers, propped up on a stack of journals. Meng, one of our co-Editors-in-Chief, then gave a detailed three-part presentation, citing examples of dos and don’ts when contacting professors, and how to create a strong profile as a candidate for a lab position.

A number of other editors on the board then introduced themselves, their programs and research interests, and the group broke into smaller circles accordingly. Riveting conversations were held, questions were asked and answered, and advice was doled out on a range of topics including cover letters and CVs, research awards, resources and timelines, and tips for general communication.

Closed off with a free-for-all journal and pastry selection, the evening was one that was wholly exciting for us, and hopefully informative, if not also fun and engaging for all present. We would like to thank everyone who showed up, and encourage further engagement with MSURJ.

We will be holding more events of this nature in the future. (Psst—what’s that I hear, an editing workshop in the makings?) If you’d like to learn more, like our Facebook Page and stay tuned for updates.