With those kind eyes, that gentle smile, and the powdery lilt to a voice steeped in her Dallas, Texas, upbringing, Paula Tallal is an unlikely revolutionary. But, with her cadre of neuroscientists, educators, and business associates, she is transforming the lives of hundreds of thousands of children worldwide. Tallal, a neuroscientist for 30 years, is doing so because of her knowledge of how the brain works. One of the biggest discoveries has been learning that it is plastic-a malleable organ that can be neurologically exercised to become stronger and more proficient in its disparate functions. Ten years ago she and three associates went a huge step further. They devised a method to help children with language and reading deficits by pinpointing and strengthening the regions of the mind responsible for these complicated computations. Like a computer benefiting from the installation of a faster processing chip, a child could thrive from reorganizing and sharpening the neural processes, thus enhancing the brain's precision, speed, and attentiveness.
In 1996, she cofounded the Scientific Learning Corporation, the producer of Fast ForWord, revolutionary software introduced in 1997, that puts users through an intensive computer-generated linguistic therapy session. Unlike typical educational software, which are usually electronic versions of textbooks, Fast ForWord uses a sophisticated algorithm, based on her and her colleagues' research, that prompts each user uniquely, reflecting his or her strengths or weaknesses, to respond to stimuli. It's calibrated to reward successful responses so that the brain rewires itself neurologically: "fire and wire," as Tallal puts it. Ten years later, Fast ForWord has reached more than a million children in 40 nations. Its success rate is a staggering 80 percent; of the company's growing business, 83 percent comes from school districts already using Fast ForWord. Scientific Learning has since developed 10 other software programs to help children of all ages. A sister company has designed software for the elderly to head off cognitive dysfunction associated with aging.
The Relationship between Language and the Brain
It's a dream come true for Paula Tallal, Board of Governors Professor of Neuroscience and codirector of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers-Newark. Her campaign for literacy stemmed from her interest in the relationship between language and the brain, a fascination that began when she worked briefly, during the early 1970s, in the aphasia ward of Kings County Hospital Center, in Brooklyn, New York. "I couldn't imagine anything worse than losing the ability to talk," says Tallal, who majored in art history at New York University and received a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Cambridge University.
After professorships at Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Rutgers-Newark came calling in the early 1980s. Its visionary provost at the time, Norman Samuels, wanted to do what no other university was doing: integrate the university's departments of chemistry, biology, and psychology into a center for neuroscience, which would integrate molecular and behavioral neuroscience under one roof. Samuels offered Tallal and Ian Creese, a pharmacologist and an associate at UCSD, the necessary funding, staffing, and facility. The Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, she says, "really has been one of the premier neuroscience programs," the ideal setting for Tallal to offer graduate instruction for students, of whom she is particularly proud, and to conduct the research that led to her role at Scientific Learning.
Ambassador for Children's Reading
These days, Tallal devotes time outside her Rutgers lab serving as a liaison to help educators understand what scientists are discovering about how the brain processes language. The biggest hurdle for schools is their chronic misdiagnosis of children's failure to read competently. The problem, says Tallal, usually starts earlier, when preschoolers fail to develop a facility for good spoken language, the platform on which successful reading is built. They fail to master-and map in their brains-the rules for parsing sounds within words or for intuitively grasping the rules, patterns, and expectations of sounds that come with continuous, and positive, exposure to them. One study revealed that eight percent of children entering school nationwide suffer from a significant spoken language deficit. What is equally threatening is the blow to children's self-esteem from their acute awareness of their shortcomings as a reader-the root of many problems in school and later in life. Tallal certainly isn't the first person to ring the alarm about the dire need for literacy. But she and her cadre have revolutionized the understanding of, and cure for, illiteracy like few before them.
This story was featured in the Winter 2008 issue of Rutgers Magazine.