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Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto is a Cognitive Neuroscientist and Developmental Cognitive Neuroscientist. She conducts neuroimaging studies using functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS / NIRx) and behavioral basic science studies to understand language acquisition, reading, bilingual language acquisition, and learning in all young children, particularly young deaf visual learners. She is the Science Director as well as the Co-Principal Investigator of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Gallaudet University’s Science of Learning Center, Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2). Dr. Petitto is also the Founder and Scientific Director of her Brain and Language Laboratory for Neuroimaging (BL2). Further, Dr. Petitto is the lead founder, as well as Chair of the Steering Committee of the Ph.D. in Educational Neuroscience (PEN) program at Gallaudet University, the first Ph.D. of its kind in the nation, where she is also Professor. For Gallaudet University, Dr. Petitto is Academic Co-Director and Steering Committee Member of “Creativity Way” (a 21st Century learning and discovery creative city being built on a section of Gallaudet University). Dr. Petitto is also a Professor in Psychology at Gallaudet University and an Affiliated Professor in Psychology at Georgetown University. Dr. Petitto is known for her work on the biological bases of language, especially involving early language acquisition. Her studies of this topic span 35 years, beginning in the 1970s with her research at Columbia University in which she attempted to teach sign language to a baby chimpanzee (“Project Nim Chimpsky” named after Noam Chomsky); here, she pioneered discoveries that showed that chimpanzees, while intelligent, do not possess the linguistic capacities of humans. She is presently known for her discoveries concerning how young human children acquire language, be it spoken or signed. She has advanced new knowledge about how all young babies (4-10 months) detect highly specific rhythmic temporal patterns in the linguistic stream around them that makes possible their capacity to discover the phonetic syllabic units of their native from which they will build all the words and/or signs in language, a process that is vital to later healthy reading success. Babies who miss being exposed to natural languages during this critical developmental period—or have reduced language exposure at this time—can be at risk for language and cognitive delays. Consequently, Petitto and her collaborative research teams have invented a revolutionary learning tool prototype called “RAVE”— a Robot AVatar thermal Enhanced language learning tool (see RAVE link). Petitto’s career has been characterized by such innovations in technology, as she pushes technologies to advance fundamental questions in science for the benefit of society, including PET, MRI, fMRI, OPTOTRAK, functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS, NIRx; state-of-the-art brain-imaging techniques to study human higher cognition) that she and collaborators integrate with Thermal Infrared Imaging (measures changes in human emotion), inclusive of an eye- and face-tracking and Motion Capture Technologies.

Brain and Language Center (BL2)

At Gallaudet, Dr. Petitto and her outstanding research team are exploring the nature of the STG brain tissue and its role in early normal language development, atypical language development, and she has recently launched an especially intensive series of studies to explore the Bilingual and the Reading Brain. She is the Scientific Director of the Brain and Language Laboratory, BL2, supported by Gallaudet University, the National ScienceFoundation, and the National Institutes of Health. In this lab, Petitto and her team of undergraduates, graduate students, and post-docs study the neural processing of American Sign Language (ASL), how children learn to read, and the effects of early bilingual language exposure on the developing brain and its functions. Petitto came to Gallaudet University in Summer 2011, when she was recruited to be the Co-Principal Investigator as well as the Science Director of one of six National Science Foundation Science of Learning Centers in the United States, which is located at Gallaudet University, the “Visual Language and Visual Learning Center (VL2).”


Petitto received her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology with Highest Honors in 1975 from Ramapo College (New Jersey, USA) while taking undergraduate classes and conducting cross-species language research with the chimpanzee  “Nim Chimpsky” (named after Noam  Chomsky) at ColumbiaUniversity, New York — on-site 1973-1976 and with scholarly  collaborations continuing 1976-1979. Petittoplayed a leading role on Project Nim Chimpsky as the chimp’s “Primary/Head Sign Language Teacher” and“Surrogate Mother,”  as well as the project’s “Project Coordinator.” Despite the dangers of living with a chimpanzee, Petitto lived with and cared for Nim as a child in an attempt to create a natural language, cognitive, and highly caring and rich social environment, mirroring that of a human child. Most all of thechimp’s scientific training and accomplishments were achieved during her tenure on the Project. Petitto then conducted psycholinguistic research on American Sign Language (ASL) in the Neurolinguistics Laboratory of Dr. Ursula Bellugi at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies (La Jolla, CA), along with Linguist, Dr. Edward Klima, of the University of California, San Diego, where Petitto began graduate study in the Department of Linguistics (1976-1977). Petitto continued graduate study at New York University (Masters degree, 1978), where she conducted psycholinguistic research on the processing demands of signing and speaking at the same time (“Simultaneous Communication”) with Dr. Gloria Marmor. She then undertook psycholinguistic research on the phonological structure of American Sign Language with Dr. William Stokoe in “The Linguistic Research Laboratory” at Gallaudet University (Washington, D.C., 1978-1979).

In Fall 1979, Petitto began graduate study at Harvard University (Cambridge, MA) in the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Department of Human Development and Psychology (Language and Cognition Track), where she received her Masters degree (1981; advisors, Drs. Roger Brown, Courtney Cazden, Jerome Kagan, Sheldon White, Ursula Bellugi, and Noam Chomsky, Linguistics, M.I.T.) and Doctoral degree (1984; advisors, Drs. Roger Brown, Courtney Cazden, Sheldon White, and Ursula Bellugi). In fall, 1983, Petitto was appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at McGill University (Montreal, QC) and, in the same year, won a coveted John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Postdoctoral Award to study with Dr. Ursula Bellugi and Dr. Elizabeth Bates. Petitto further studied human Genetics with Dr. Francis Crick, which grew into a lifelong friendship that mutually changed minds. As stated by Crick, his increasing respect for the existence of mind and the neural representation of language in the human brain. For Petitto, her polymorphism analyses of the set/cluster of possible “candidate genes” that potentially govern the Phonological level of language organization in humans, e.g., University of Toronto

research program. Petitto built a vibrant laboratory in Cognitive Neuroscience at McGill University (1983-2001), while conducting Positron Emission Tomography (PET) brain-imaging studies as a Research Scientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute working with Drs. Robert Zatorre, Brenda Milner, and others. Petitto is presently the Science Director and Co-Principal Investigator at the National Science Foundation and Gallaudet University’s Science of Learning Center, called “Visual Language and Visual Learning, VL2” in Washington, D.C. Petitto is also full Professor of Psychology and Senior Scientist of her own brain-imaging laboratory, called “Brain and Language Lab for Neuroimaging, BL2” at Gallaudet University, full Professor and Chair of the Ph.D. in Educational Neuroscience, and an Affiliated full Professor in the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University. Before this, Petitto was at the University of Toronto (2007-2011), and, prior, Petitto was a Research Professor of Psychology, as well as Chair of a department that Petitto newly designed/created and helped to establish, called the “Department of Educational Neuroscience and Human Development,” at Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH, 2001-2007).

Founder and Scientific Director of the

Brain and Language Laboratory for Neuroimaging (BL2)

Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto

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