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Margaret Gillon Dowens: The Brain and Language hold the key to a healthier old age

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Dr. Margaret Gillon Dowens has been a mainstay of UNNC’s research community for several years. Working with her team in a dedicated laboratory, Margaret hopes that her pioneering studies on the brain’s language abilities will lead to tangible improvements in the quality of life of aging populations across the globe. We sat down with Margaret for a chat about her life and work.

Please tell us a little about your life before UNNC

Before I came to Ningbo, I studied in the UK and later moved to Spain to work as a language teacher. I went on to study psychology and I obtained a Masters and PhD in cognitive neuroscience. In 2007, I went to Beijing Normal University to run experiments about Chinese people learning Spanish and then I came to UNNC in 2009. Here I set up Cognitive Neuroscience of Language Lab for research into brain and language, and I started teaching psycho/neurolinguistics, research methodology and other related areas. 

What are some of the projects you are working on now?

There are two major projects going on at the moment, the first focusing on “automatic” processing of language. This seeks to understand how much the brain processes a written language when one is not fully conscious of seeing it and we are basing our study on Chinese characters. It also looks into how reading develops from childhood and becomes automatic, or can result in problems such as dyslexia.  This project has just received Chinese government funding.                                                                

The second project is about ageing and language. Previous research suggests that early bilinguals develop a form of cognitive reserve that is useful in delaying the onset of dementia. The research we are doing now seeks to look into learning languages at a much more advanced age and ascertain the advantages that this can provide. We are looking at brain plasticity in late language learners over the age of 60, using EEG/ERPs, an electrophysiology technique which monitors the electrical activity of the brain. 

How has being based in China been advantageous to the research?

The uniqueness of the language, as well as the modern and dynamic nature of the Chinese environment offers new opportunities and insights into brain activity in language processing and learning, to complement previous studies done on European languages. There is also the advantage of the rapid increase and interest in bi and multilingualism, as well as a large number of retired but active older people, which makes the research easier and more effective.

What impact do you hope your research will have?

We hope our research can contribute to developing new models and interventions for dyslexia, which is still a major problem around the world. We also hope to devise ways to improve brain health and psychological well-being at older ages, using language learning as a form of cognitive enhancement.

Posted on 26 July 2017