Dr. Nicole Landi is an associate professor at the University of Connecticut, adjunct assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center, and director of electroencephalography (EEG) research at Haskins Laboratories. Her research focuses on language and reading development in typically developing children and in children with complex neurodevelopmental disorders, including dyslexia, developmental language disorder (DLD), and autism. She uses multiple methodologies—magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), EEG, and genetic analyses—with the intention of identifying causal mechanisms that contribute to reading and language difficulties. Dr. Landi received her PhD and MS in psychology and cognitive neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh and her BA in psychology from University at Albany. She resides in New Haven, CT.
To begin, how did you first become interested in scientific research and what sparked your initial curiosity?
In part, I was always someone who was really interested in the way things work. When I started college, I began as a biology major because I enjoyed discovering how humans work. At that time, at my university, it turned out that there weren’t a lot of opportunities to explore the aspect of human organization that I was particularly interested in, which was the brain. I started to take a lot more psychology classes and eventually worked in a couple of cognitive psychology research labs. That’s what started getting me thinking in an experimental way.
How did you come to narrow your focus on language and reading development in typically and atypically developing children?
I developed a deeper interest in language and reading from my time working in the two research labs in college. One of the labs focused broadly on language acquisition. The other lab specifically focused on the semantic, orthographic, and phonological relationships among words; to do this we studied priming, which is a phenomenon where if you briefly see a word and then you see a related word—related in one of many different ways—you will be faster able to identify that second word. This approach affords a deeper understanding of the kind of information we automatically extract from words and how quickly we can do so. When I began to consider what I’d like to pursue in graduate school, I realized then that I wanted to combine my interest in neuroscience with my interests in psycholinguistics. So, I sought a program in the emerging area of cognitive neuroscience, and, ultimately, I studied at the University of Pittsburgh’s interdisciplinary program, The Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition. My advisor there, Dr. Charles Perfetti, introduced me to the study of individual differences in reading and his work has strongly influenced my thinking.
What questions about dyslexia or language and reading development keep you motivated to continue your research?
One motivator for me is identifying causal mechanisms. How do we come to have individual differences in reading or language? What are the neurobiological factors? What are the genetic factors? What are the things that fall into place biologically or environmentally that lead to those individual differences? Another big question that drives me is: how can we, as scientists who study reading, help in the effort to identify at-risk children early? And, can we figure out why some kids continue to struggle, despite receiving the best evidence-based treatments available?
Now you are leading the Haskins research team on The Windward School/Haskins Laboratories Collaborative Project by overseeing the EEG lab research. In your own words, can you describe what this project entails?
The Windward/Haskins collaboration is a multifaceted project that’s part of a larger global initiative aimed at further developing educational neuroscience within the realm of reading. The project seeks to understand if, within a population of children who all have language-based learning disabilities, we can determine why some children respond well to evidence-based treatments and other children do not.
How does a researcher design an EEG study and decide which tests—like the ones that will be used in the Predicting Literacy Outcomes at The Windward School study—to conduct?
When it comes to picking specific tasks and designing specific experiments, it is tricky. For example, we know that standardized assessments used to measure skills such as phonological awareness and rapid automatized naming are useful and predictive, but they have many subcomponents. They are not pure measures. Many phonological awareness tasks, for example, involve phonological processing but also executive functions. As researchers, we try to design behavioral and electrophysiological experiments that will measure independent components to get a finer grain of assessment of relevant processes, and ultimately to see if these will be predictive of treatment response.
For those who may not be familiar with EEG testing, what should people know?
First of all, EEG studies are safe. Whenever we’re going to be using something technology based and with children involved, we want to make sure it’s safe. The equipment and the technology is very noninvasive.
What differentiates EEG testing from other types of assessments?
EEG is a sensitive measure. Parents might ask, “Why do you need to do this testing in addition to all of the behavioral assessments that my children routinely get that are supposed to tell you all about their phonological processing, their working memory, etc.?” To that I would say behavioral assessments are very useful metrics, but they’re not necessarily able to provide as sensitive a measurement as we might need. With the example of the Windward study, we are gathering a lot of sensitive information that might help us better understand when kids are or are not responding well to treatment and why that might be so. EEG testing might tell us something about the participants’ underlying cognitive processing that will help us get a better understanding of what is going on.
What will the impact be of researchers working with educators, like you are doing with The Windward School/Haskins Collaborative Project?
Bidirectional learning. I don’t have a background in education, and most cognitive neuroscientists do not. If our goal is to probe into and understand the cognitive neuroscience of reading, those of us who do this research need to understand how children are being taught to read. Being able to expose my team of students, postdocs, research associates, and myself to the field of education firsthand has already been an incredible learning experience. I expect it will continue to be so. Through this work with Windward, we can see how our research might change the way children are taught, which is an amazing opportunity for me and my team. Reciprocally, I hope the educators involved will learn from us about experimental methodology and cognitive neuroscience techniques, both the benefits and the limitations. It's my hope that this will help all of us to shape our work in a more enlightened way.
Through this work with Windward, we see how our research might change the way children are taught, which is an amazing opportunity for me and my team.
Are there any resources that you would recommend to parents to learn more about EEG labs or cognitive neuroscience?
For EEG, there aren’t many. We should have more resources geared toward consumers, and I hope we can create some through The Windward School/Haskins Laboratories Collaborative Project. That said, there is a lot of overlap in terms of the information obtained from different cognitive neuroscience tools. If someone learns about functional MRI (fMRI) for example, some of what is learned will transfer to EEG. fMRI in particular has been much more widely used to study dyslexia and these findings have been made available in a way that is easier to digest.
Why is collaboration between experts of different disciplines, like cognitive neuroscience researchers and educators, so vital?
Researchers and teachers working directly together is important because it facilitates progress. When we have open dialogue, a common headspace, benchmarks, and goals, our work is more likely to benefit children. We have been thrilled to work with The Windward School, and we have already learned so much. I really am so thankful for the opportunity to come into Windward and do this exciting work.