For Researchers

Research Background

Approximately 7% of children experience unexplained difficulties in learning their first language, despite relatively typical development in other domains. Their problems cannot be explained by a lack of opportunity, intellectual, visual or hearing impairment, or social deprivation. Difficulties in using and understanding language result in under achievement in education, low self-esteem and reduced employment opportunities.


Awareness of language impairments affecting school-age children is lacking in education, in the employment sector, and in society more generally. This contrasts starkly with the public’s awareness and understanding of other developmental disorders such as dyslexia, autism and attention deficit disorder.

Scientific studies show that language impairments may be caused by genetic abnormalities. However, we know little about the differences in the brain that relate to the language learning difficulties seen in children. We need to improve our understanding of how the brain is organised and how it functions in children with developmental language disorder. In the future, this new knowledge could help us to develop the means to help affected children through designing novel therapies.


Research Aims

Surprisingly little is known about the neural correlates of developmental language disorder.We will use state-of-the-art methods for acquisition and analysis of brain imaging data and detailed behavioural testing to study a large population of children with a range of language learning abilities. We will recruit 80 children with language disorders and 80 children experiencing typical language development. We aim to provide a detailed characterisation of the structure and function of the brain networks underlying developmental language disorder in these children.

We will specifically test two hypotheses, namely that children with developmental language disorders show:

(i) structural and functional alterations in corticostriatal circuits;

(ii) atypical structural and functional lateralisation
We will relate different measures of the structure and function of neural networks to the various patterns of performance on verbal and nonverbal behavioural measures. These exploratory analyses will inform and extend our existing theoretical frameworks concerning the neural underpinnings of DLD. Finally, we aim to share our data to allow comparison with other neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism.
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Why is this research important?

The proposed work is important for two reasons: (i) it will enhance our understanding of the specific neural circuits associated with language-learning impairment, and (ii) we will test specific hypotheses about the underlying causal deficit. The findings may also help identify possible routes to intervention and novel therapeutic approaches.