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Scholar Researches Connection Between How We Think and What We Hear

Bharath Chandrasekaran

20 June 2013

Each year, the International Office at The University of Texas at Austin supports the success of global scholars coming to the United States to pursue research and teaching careers. They provide multiple services, from hosting Fulbright Scholar training for visiting international graduate students to helping new faculty members secure the necessary federal approvals for their time in the United State. The following is a profile of Dr. Bharath Chandrasekaran, a global scholar putting down roots in Texas and making a unique contribution to his field of study.

WITH SUPPORT FROM THE UNIVERSITY, Dr. Bharath Chandrasekaran continues to explore how the complexity of music can bring about new discoveries within the human brain and make great contributions to his field of study.

“Music is like mental gymnastics,” said Chandrasekaran. “The deep listening skills involved in learning and playing music are some of the same skills that help us learn a new language.”

Chandrasekaran is an assistant professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders and director of the Soundbrain research lab at The University of Texas at Austin. Using a variety of research tools, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), brainstem electrophysiology and behavioral methods, Chandrasekaran’s team studies the representation of speech and music in the human brain, and how these representations are modified by listening experiences.

The goal of this research is twofold. One goal is to understand how humans process speech in environments with competing noise, such as public spaces and restaurants. The other is to identify what factors differentiate individuals more easily able to learn a new language from those who find learning a new language difficult.

Chandrasekaran said he realized early in his graduate training that his interest in both how the ear hears and how the brain processes those sounds placed him on an interdisciplinary career path. He pursued training in both hearing and neuroscience, earning a master’s degree in Speech Sciences and Disorders in 2004 and a Ph.D. in Integrative Neuroscience in 2008, both from Purdue University. He went on to complete a post-doctoral research fellowship at Northwestern University. Chandrasekaran joined the Communication Science and Disorders faculty at The University of Texas at Austin in 2010.

His research reveals that humans’ ability to process speech in a noisy environment is influenced by individual differences in listening skills.  Specifically, studies conducted by Dr. Chandrasekaran and his research team in the SoundBrain lab reveal listening skills are shaped by early linguistic and musical experience. However, short-term auditory training programs can also help enhance speech processing in challenging listening environments.

In practical terms, Chandrasekaran has identified a surprising factor differentiating individuals more easily able to learn another language – music training. That is, individuals who have some training in music are able to more quickly acquire a new language than those who have not received music training.

“Music supports what is called the cross-domain transfer of expertise. In the past, the brain was thought to remain stable over time, that we were born with varying degrees of ability related to processing and organizing sound stimuli," Chandrasekaran said. "However, our research shows us that the brain is considerably plastic, that is, even in adulthood the brain can be reorganized by training experiences.”

Colleagues across the global research community commend Chandrasekaran’s contributions to a new understanding of the brain’s role in the auditory process, as well as how this relationship evolves based on experience.

“Dr. Chandrasekaran is one of the few neuroscientists to use a multimodal approach to understanding the neural bases of speech processing,” Professor Ping Li of Penn State University explained. “From a theoretical perspective, he has pioneered the understanding of the role of lower-level sensory structures in language processing, an important area that has been largely ignored by current neural models.”

As evidenced by his robust publication record, Chandrasekaran’s research is opening new possibilities for interdisciplinary research on both how the brain processes sound and how it acquires language. He is grateful for the opportunity to manage his own lab and to train graduate students, paying forward the opportunities he received during his own graduate training.

“I’m thrilled to continue partnering with new colleagues, help train the next generation of researchers and collaborate with peers around the world from my home base at the Soundbrain lab at UT-Austin. The future sounds exciting.”

By Angie Pastorek

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