Fatima Husain says she took the “scenic route” to her current positions as Assistant Professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science at the University of Illinois and Beckman Institute faculty member.
While growing up in India, Husain had dreams of being a writer, but an aptitude for science put her on a different academic path. Still, she says, she never lost her interest in how people express themselves.
“I love languages and everybody in India is multi-lingual,” said Husain, who speaks five languages herself. “It’s quite easy for me to learn a new language. If I’m going to travel in a country I can memorize a phrasebook very quickly to at least speak some sentences.”
– Fatima Husain
Part of her interest in language was in learning how it is people acquire the spoken and written word.
“How does the brain make sense of this, how do we acquire language, how do we learn a new language as infants and as we grow older?” Husain asked rhetorically. “It always fascinated me because I wanted to be a novelist or a poet. Words always moved me, language always moved me. But I was good with math and science so the push was always to go toward that rather than the liberal arts.”
Husain’s undergraduate degree was in engineering, but her interest in language and the process of language acquisition led her to pursue a Ph.D. in Cognitive and Neural Systems at Boston University.
“When I was doing my master’s in computer science I realized that I really wanted to understand how language works from inside the brain,” Husain said. “Because I was from engineering and not the biological sciences, I wasn’t sure how to get into neuroscience. A natural segue was to study computational neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience. The department at Boston University at that time in 1995 was one of few that focused on that kind of work.”
Husain, a member of Beckman’s Human Perception and Performance group, has a research focus on auditory, speech, and language processing in the brain using neuroimaging (fMRI) and computational modeling techniques. She said the methods aren’t as important as the subjects she studies.
“My overarching goal is to understand how the brain works and I use different tools to get there,” Husain said. “I use computer modeling, behavioral experiments, and fMRI experiments right now but I imagine using other tools in the future. My goal is to understand how the brain works, specifically, in the domains of language, speech, and hearing.”
Husain’s research career began to truly take flight while she was working at the National Institutes of Health as a research scientist, creating computer models for understanding auditory and speech processing. It was while at NIH that she presented an idea to her mentor about studying tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. She had been going to programs and conferences to give talks about her computer models and took in presentations about tinnitus.
“I had been thinking about it for a very long time,” Husain said of the tinnitus study. “I said ‘wait a minute I can give tinnitus to my model’ and I went back and did that on my own time. I had been researching on my own and finally I was in a position to conduct research and get a grant. That was important because nobody at the NIH intramural program was doing research on tinnitus before I got there.”
Using computer models from her previous work, combined with fMRI data, Husain was able to look at the problem of tinnitus in a new way.
“This is the only model I know of from a cerebral cortex perspective,” she said. “I’m trying to study auditory processing disorders with this, especially disorders which have a lot of complexity and that we don’t understand as much.”
In order to create a model for studying tinnitus, Husain took her models of auditory processing and perturbed them to reflect the effects of the hearing disorder. Her innovative computer model was able to provide new insight into tinnitus.
“The more I study this disorder the more obvious it is to me how heterogeneous the population is, in terms of the etiology and in the reaction of the people to it,” she said. “It is a very complex disorder. We know hearing loss may trigger tinnitus, but only about 40 percent of persons with hearing loss develop tinnitus. One of the research questions I am trying to answer is: why do some people with hearing loss develop tinnitus while others do not?”
Husain said looking at larger samples using both computer models and data from experiments using techniques like fMRI should give a more complete understanding of tinnitus.
“We want to study a large enough population and then use our modeling and clever statistical analysis of our MRI experiments to try and identify the major sources of variance within the population and see if can we find something that is common for this population – apart from the fact that they have ringing in the ears,” Husain said. “What is it that is common? Can we figure out the brain functions, regions, and mechanisms that underlie this disorder? If we can get there, then we are halfway to developing therapies and our own interventions.”
Husain said she is looking at clinical populations to broaden her understanding of tinnitus and hearing impairment. That was part of the reason why she joined the faculty in Speech and Hearing Science.
“Because I’m looking at clinical populations, it made sense to be in the Speech and Hearing Science department,” she said. “But at the same time, because my background is so multidisciplinary, I want to use multiple tools and work with a range of researchers.”
Husain said she uses technologies like fMRI but her computer models are able to provide a more complete picture of brain function.
“For instance, in the processing of phonemes, fMRI does not tell me what mechanisms or computations are taking part in those regions that sub-serve that function,” she said. “A network of brain regions is activated when listeners are processing phonemes. But what exactly is going on in these regions? I am blind to that if I just look at the fMRI data.
“So I have to come up with a theory of what is going on and to do that, I create a model based on earlier experimental work. In some ways it is theory instantiated within a particular set of circumstances. In neuroscience right now we have tons of tools, very exciting tools, and we are coming up with data at new levels of specificity and clarity. But while we are rich in data, we are poor in theory. And we will continue to be richer in data as we get better tools. With modeling, we can begin to understand the mechanisms and make connections between different data sets (animal, human). We can see the big picture and ask big questions. That is what I see as the value of modeling.”
Husain is pursuing research lines other than tinnitus. She is interested in categorizing sounds and words, and is about to publish a paper looking at how people assess categories of different gestures. It will report on the commonalities shared by hearing people processing sound categories and deaf people processing the same gestural categories. Husain said language processing is all one area, regardless of how people communicate.
“Language acquisition to me is like high-level category acquisition,” she said. “The other major theme of my research has been investigating the acquisition and processing of categories. I’ve looked at that through speech and through sign language.”
Husain is also exploring collaborations with other Beckman researchers looking at topics such as language learning in older adults.
“I think I will always have a broad focus,” Husain said. “I learned a number of techniques and perspectives in my scenic route to get here but, finally, I can use them to understand not only the normal brain but also the disordered brain. Tinnitus is an illusory sound. The illusions and disorders of the brain tell us so much more about normal processing.
“In my tinnitus research, I see the culmination of all the tools and techniques I’ve learned and I can apply to them to a complex disorder and hopefully, we can develop better evaluations of therapies and develop new interventions so that we help people.”