Academia knowledge neuroscience research Special Guest writing

(40) Research on Brain: reading.

Research on BRAIN month continues with the another indispensable gift that human brain offers us, amongst other skills – and that is READING. The Experienced Researcher at the 4th top young leading university in the world Maastricht University, Dr. Gojko Žarić will explain us how is it that we end up re-a-ding… Finally, I get to understand what are these machines on a Researcher’s head doing :):)

Dr. Gojko Zaric

Can you read? How do you do that?

Humans read and write for about 5000 years. It appears that the reading relies on the brain areas that serve other functions, such as vision, hearing and language, rather than reading alone. But things get more complicated with other higher cognitive functions such as, the attention – a crucial factor in successful reading.


Figure 1. Possibly the earliest known writing. Summer pictographic writing on the limestone tablet from Kish dated ~3500 BC (Source: Wikipedia).

This means that a large number of brain areas have to cooperate to allow us to read (one example of these areas is in  Figure 2). Thus, as reading is a complex cognitive function, it is not surprising that 1-2 in every 20 children have trouble mastering this skill. In other words, in every classroom there is at least one child struggling with reading due to a specific learning disability with neuro-biological root. These children suffer from developmental dyslexia. In my research I am looking at brain responses of children and adults to reading related materials and tasks.

Figure 2. One modern day view of the brain areas involved in reading (Source: Dehaene, Reading in the Brain, 2009).

Written language consists of arbitrary visual forms, i.e. letters. that the certain society relates to the speech sounds of its language. Speech sounds are distinct units of the spoken language that differentiate between the words (e.g. mug, bug, rug). If the letters represent distinct speech sounds we call the script alphabetic (Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Hangul, Armenian and Georgian) A more loose definition of alphabetic scripts includes script such as abjad in which commonly only the consonants are written (Arabic and Hebrew), syllabic (Japanese Katakana script), and abugida scripts in which the vowel does not have its own symbol but is represented by changing the letter symbol of the consonant (e.g. Indic, Ethiopic, Canadian Aboriginal). Another group of scripts are logographic scripts, such as Chinese, in which visual symbols already represent meaningful units of language (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Examples of different scripts: 1) Alphabet – Dutch 2) Syllabic – Japanese Katakana 3) Abjad – Hebrew 4) Abugida – Ethiopic 5) Alphabet – Serbian Cyrillic and Latin 6) Logographic – Chinese standard and modern simplified (examples).

Thus, a child learning to read an alphabetic script first has to learn to connect letters and corresponding speech sounds, e.g. letter “m” to the speech sound /m/ in the words “mug”, “drum”… My research topic (remember what we called a “Research question” part on do-your-own-little Research?) is how a child’s brain builds up letter-speech sound connections and how it automatizes them to allow children to move to the next stages of the reading development. Next, my research also concerns the reading stage in which these connections are made and children can recognize words as units without having to read them letter by letter.  Furthermore, I am interested in what brain responses differ between children with and without reading problems. In other words, can I find which brain areas or which cognitive functions are not cooperating as supposed to.

To investigate these questions we can use different neuro-scientific methods such as electroencephalography, functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging.

Electroencephalography (EEG) tells us, with the millisecond precision when the brain responds to a certain stimulus. For example, we can present readers with the letters and speech sounds that match or mismatch (Figure 4, middle row) and we can investigate how is the brain responding in these two conditions and if the brains of dyslexic children produce different responses. In another task, we can measure  their responses while they read words or meaningless letter-like false font strings (Figure 4, bottom row). We can then analyze, for example, amplitudes and latencies of the brain responses. We can also analyze how is signal measured at the back of the head related to the signal measured at the front of the head to see if these signals come from the brain areas that cooperate or not. And many more possibilities for an analysis of the EEG data are available…

Figure 4. Examples of an EEG measurement during letter-speech sound integration and word reading task.

We can use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see where in the brain are the areas that get more/less activated during letter-speech sound integration or word reading (example in Figure 2 is based on multiple studies with various tasks). With this method we can see that children and adult readers activate the same brain network during reading, but regions that are involved in letter-speech sound integration are activated more in children, while regions involved in fast recognition of words as units are activated more in adults.

We can also look at the white matter of the brain using magnetic resonance imaging, by employing different imaging technique, diffusion weighted imaging (Figure 5). White matter contains the highways of the brain, large bundles of the neuronal axons through which the signals travel between different brain areas. The integrity of the white matter can develop differently over time in dyslexic and typical readers. On the other hand, reading can influence white matter development, i.e. the more the certain neuronal bundles are used, the more structured they become.

Figure 5. Diffusion weighted image of the white matter of the human brain (Source: Wikipedia).

Thus neuroscience offers multiple methods to look at the typical and atypical reading development. These methods can be combined with reading trainings to examine the benefits of the training at both behavioral and neural level. The coupling of behavioral and neural changes with reading training is not only scientifically important as it informs us which brain areas serve which functions, but it is foremost important for the children with reading problem, as it may be a sign that the changes are long-lasting.

If this short introduction made you interested in the research of reading and dyslexia, you can check my ResearchGate page or webpage, made by my collaborator, Dr. Gorka Fraga González from University of Amsterdam, where you can find our scientific papers on these topics. You can visit our Maastricht University based research group page to find out more on different reading, speech and language related research.

Post written by Gojko Žarić, M-BIC, Maastricht University

With love for Research,


health ignorance last years of PhD research Researcher Researchista struggle writing

(14) Writing & no RSI.

Intellectual work demands a lot of energy and effort. Apart from eating a lot of nuts and chocolate for brain, one also needs to be fit to be able to stay long hours in front of the computer. Someone told me once, a PhD student with no particular health problems was so exhausted from writing (typing) that was not able to hold a cup of tea anymore. He had R S I…  find out here what that is. RSI happened to me also, for a while I had no power in my arms/hands at all. I learned later that one of my colleagues even had surgery to both of her wrists and that RSI stays for life.

So, what to do if you have RSI? Do not avoid to ask for help from friends/family at times like this, you might make it worse by forcing your arms and do everything yourself.

Adjust your work station to your body parameters. Every modern institution/company is equipped with ergonomic chairs, etc. By the way, if you work at Maastricht University an entire department is dedicated to such questions. It works a bit like an ambulance, upon request they will visit your station (asap) and explain everything, maybe give you an ergonomic mouse or keyboard. Here is how you can contact them, fast and painless.

photo credit: internet.

Visit a physio-therapist… First thing I did was to go see a physio-therapist who could unblock the pain in my arms and shoulders. There are so many services in Maastricht, I went to Jasper’s Physio Therapy  and found a really nice doctor, who said smiling that she was having an entire PhD crowd enrolling to her sessions, especially the last year ones.

When you are back on track, join Researchista and Backforward to strengthen those muscles, do sports – the best proven remedy against RSI. One full-year discount voucher to all Researchers in Maastricht and neighbouring areas is offered to you as of today! 😀 Download it here and present it at your first session.


Certainly “the evil is not so black as it seems”, keep calm and carry on. RSI compared to other issues is probably minuscule, yet is good to know about it and prevent on time, so that you can hold strongly that cup of tea and make that lemonade out of those lemons! 🙂

Palma-de-Majorca, Spain (2014)

Stay RSI-free!

With love for Researchers, R.

future knowledge research research design Researcher struggle writing

(11) Writing and Research Design

The question is what is the question.

Should I conduct semi-structured interviews? Do we need an experiment? Would a mixed-methods approach be more appropriate than a (mainly) qualitative or quantitative approach? How to analyze the data once obtained? These and other questions come to mind when thinking about a new study, and the answer to each of these questions boils down to the purpose or core question of the study.


Whether it comes to interviews, experiments, mixed-methods approaches, or other issues, there is no point of doing something if there is no question that calls for it. Doing interviews for the sake of doing interviews – or because we have been doing so for years – is unlikely to serve your purpose if your main question calls for an experiment. Likewise, experiments can provide a means for questions concerning causal relations between particular variables of interest and may have little added value if there is no such question to begin with.

Some may argue that in for instance a social science context, a mixed-methods approach is always better than a (mainly) qualitative or quantitative approach. However, mixed-methods research only makes sense when an integration of quantitative and qualitative findings responds to a research question or set of research questions in such a way that it tells more than two separated (one quantitative, one qualitative) studies, or: 1 + 1 = 3.

Whichever method, design or combinations thereof you are considering, there is a metaphorical bridge between question (purpose), data collection, and analysis; it is good to keep that bridge in mind throughout the entire journey from core question to reporting the study in an article.

by Jimmie Leppink

To read more, see here:



PhD I. asks: “I don’t know what to do after my PhD which ends 1 year from now. I would like to stay in academia pr research institutes that do high quality research, but there are no so many offers out there. Please advice”

Jimmie answers:  “This is a question I receive quite frequently, as it is a question that many PhD candidates at this stage deal with (it was certainly a question on my mind back then). Given that a change you may have in mind will probably take some time (application, paperwork, move, etc.), it is good that you are having this question now, about one year before the finish of your PhD project. If you know you would like to continue doing research at an academic institute, the next question is what institutes attract you and why. Three things to consider in this why question: (1) Topics; (2) Culture; (3) Geography.

(1) Topics. In many cases, specific institutes come to mind because they are working on topics that are of interest to the PhD candidate. Read more about the topics of research that the institutes you wish to consider are known for. What defines each of these institutes topic-wise and how does that align with your own interests and, to some extent, with your current activities?

(2) Culture. I have learned that writing style (articles) and presentation style (conferences) can tell quite a bit about the culture and mindset of people from a particular institute. Moreover, formal collaboration with other institutes as in joint authorship on articles and presentations can serve as an indicator of the extent to which an institute under consideration is open to collaboration and idea exchange with other places.

(3) Geography. If you have a partner and/or (young) kids, you or your loved one(s) may be less willing to move. It is then very important to discuss this factor in an early stage and see what the outcome of that discussion means for your options. Even if you are currently not in a relationship and have no kids, it is recommendable to reflect on this factor early on. If an institute that interests you is in a different country, are you willing to make the move, and if so, what investments – emotional, financial, other – are you willing to make for that move to happen?

Once you have reflected on these factors, it is important to start making connections with one or two of the institutes you still have in mind. Is there some project or perhaps article you can work on with some people from that institute? Is there a conference where you may meet some of the (key) people from that institute? Do your supervisors have connections with that institute? Especially if continuing in your current institute – for instance due to funding issues – is not an option, your supervisors may actually be willing to help you connect with people in the institute you have in mind.

There is a lot more to say about this question, but the issues I have addressed here can be of help in your stage – one year before the end of the PhD – as well as in subsequent stages of your career.”


research writing

(10) Tips on how to improve your writing

Writing about your work is not an easy thing to do, especially in the beginning of your career. Writer’s block, deadlines, and stress are more common among writers than you might think at first. Add to this that many of us write about their work in their second or third language, and it becomes easy to understand that writing takes some effort and patience. However, there are some things you can do to make the writing experience a bit easier.


To start, having to write about a topic “because we have to” rather than because we find an intrinsic meaning in doing so can make writing a real struggle. Writing typically becomes easier when we focus on a topic we feel comfortable with and which we find worth writing about.

Once decided on the topic, it is important to find good sparring partners. These can be colleagues, co-authors, friends. Having a diverse group of sparring partners – including both people who are well familiar with and people who are laymen in the topic you have in mind – can help greatly to write an article that may attract a wide audience.

Finally, it is important to set clear goals, monitor your progress towards these goals as you go, and find a good balance between writing activity, other work-related activity, and time off! Really, enjoy your breaks, take your time off, for sometimes that is what we need to see how to advance where we got stuck for a bit.

by Jimmie Leppink

To read more, see here:


enthusiasm first years of PhD research Researcher Researchista struggle writing

(8) Hello dear PhDs, how are you?

We hope that our post finds you well. Nobody knows better than yourself what is the best way to advance in your PhD. You are the boss of your life, of your time and the master of your skills. We trust you are making the best of it and hope that the posts to come in April will help and inspire you with new ideas or different approaches to solve your challenges and concerns. Isn’t it more joyful to have a companion on the road, at least for a while?