May 2, 2007

Salk scientist Ursula Bellugi elected to National Academy of Sciences

Salk News

Salk scientist Ursula Bellugi elected to National Academy of Sciences

La Jolla, CA – Salk Institute professor Ursula Bellugi, who pioneered the study of the biological foundation of language, has been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy made the announcement today during its 144th annual meeting in Washington, DC. Election to the Academy recognizes distinguished and continuing achievements in original research, and is considered one of the highest honors accorded a U.S. scientist.

Dr. Bellugi, director of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, is regarded as the founder of the neurobiology of American Sign Language, since her research revealed that there are primary linguistic systems, passed down from one generation of deaf people to the next, which have been forged into a complexly structured language with complex grammatical properties 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 led to the finding 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, whether spoken or signed, is a striking demonstration of neuronal plasticity.

During her whole 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 under the umbrella of a Program Project from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, one of the first of its kind, to help her trace the influence of individual genes on the development and function of the brain. Led by Bellugi, the researchers are looking to Williams syndrome to provide clues to some of the mysteries of the genetic basis of behavior.

This puzzling genetically based disorder leaves language, facial recognition and social skills remarkably well preserved in contrast to severe inadequacy in other cognitive aptitudes. This disorder 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 the environment to sculpt the brain in unique ways. With unflagging enthusiasm, Bellugi moves closer to understanding how missing genes and the resulting changes in brain structure and function ultimately shape behavior.

As of today, 14 of the Salk Institute’s 59 faculty are members of the National Academy of Sciences.

About Ursula Bellugi:

Ursula Bellugi graduated from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and earned her doctorate at Harvard University. She served briefly on the faculty at Harvard University before joining the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where she directs the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience.

Dr. Bellugi has been the recipient of multiple honors, including two MERIT awards from the National Institute of Child Health and Development; the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute on Deafness; and the Foundation IPSEN Prize in Neuronal Plasticity, together with Torsten Wiesel and Wolfgang Singer. Dr. Bellugi has served on an Advisory Council to the NIH, and is an Associate of the Neurosciences Research Program as well as the Dana Brain Alliance. Her research has been presented to Congress as part of the Decade of the Brain and at recent symposia on Genes, Brain and Cognition. Dr. Bellugi has been awarded the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association and the Distinguished Woman of the Decade Award from the City of Los Angeles.

About the National Academy of Sciences:

The National Academy of Sciences is an organization of scientists and engineers established by Congress and dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare. It was established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation, signed by Abraham Lincoln, which calls on the Academy to act as an official adviser to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science or technology.

Additional information about the Academy is available at

About the Salk Institute for Biological Studies:

Internationally renowned for its groundbreaking basic research in the biological sciences, the Salk Institute was founded in 1960 by Dr. Jonas Salk, five years after he developed the first safe and effective vaccine against polio. The Institute’s 59 faculty members are scientific leaders in the fields of molecular biology, neurosciences and plant biology.

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