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Ursula Bellugi Elected to National Academy of Sciences

Ursula Bellugi, professor and director of the Salk Institute's Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience, has been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, an organization that recognizes distinguished achievements in original research. It is considered one of the highest honors accorded a U.S. scientist.

Bellugi is regarded as the founder of the neurobiology of American Sign Language since her research revealed that there are primary linguistic systems in the hands and for the eyes, which have become forged into complexly structured languages with complex grammatical properties based on the use of the hands in spatial patterning, not derived from spoken languages.

Before, it had been assumed that the organizational properties of language are connected with the sounds of speech. Her work has found that the left hemisphere of the human brain has an innate predisposition for language, even for a language in which spatial and visual processing plays a central role. This predisposition of certain brain systems to process language is a striking demonstration of neuronal plasticity.

During her career, Bellugi has been seeking new avenues for understanding the ties between molecular genetics, the brain and cognition. So she reached out across disciplines and assembled a team of experts from her work in cognitive neuroscience to brain systems and molecular under the umbrella of a Program Project from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development. A first of its kind, the program is helping her trace the influence of individual genes on the development and function of the brain and higher cognitive functions. Led by Bellugi, the researchers are looking to Williams syndrome to provide clues to some of the mysteries of the genetic and neural bases of behavior.

This puzzling genetically based disorder leaves language, facial recognition and social skills remarkably strong in contrast to severe inadequacy in other cognitive aptitudes. Williams syndrome arises from a faulty recombination event during the development of sperm or egg cells.

As a result, almost invariably the same set of about 20 genes is deleted from one copy of chromosome seven, making Williams syndrome a unique model system to study how a genetic predisposition interacts with ITS environment to sculpt the brain in unique ways.