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6th January, 2016

Royal Holloway researchers lip-sync to Adele’s “Hello” to demonstrate pioneering new research

Researchers from Royal Holloway’s Psychology Department have used MRI scanning technology to directly demonstrate for the first time how mouth movements in speech are connected to the brain regions controlling them. The team used the technology to create a video of PhD student Nadine Lavan lip-syncing to Adele’s “Hello” – the incredible images have since been viewed more than 75,000 times on Facebook and featured in the national press.

Dr Carolyn McGettigan and Dr Daniel Carey at Royal Holloway’s Vocal Communication Laboratory used images of the mouth to find patterns of brain activity for the movements we make when producing different vowels and it is hoped that this technology could be used in the future to understand how people recover speech after stroke.

The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, uses the Department’s MRI scanner which takes eight images per second from a ‘slice’ running through the middle of the head. This enables the researchers to see right into the vocal tract to measure the movements of the lips, tongue, soft palate and other articulators, and link these movements to what’s happening inside the brain.

Dr McGettigan said: “In our video of a participant lip-synching to Adele you can see the soft palate at the back of the mouth flip up and down to direct the airflow through the mouth or through the nasal cavity depending on the speech sound that is being made. Whilst this is going on the brain is active in perceiving the sounds that are being imitated, as well as planning and executing movements to mouth along.”

The research is  relevant to understanding how we learn new languages. Research has shown that it is harder for adult learners to achieve native-like pronunciation of other languages, compared with child learners. There are also large individual differences in this, where some adults have a greater talent than others.

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