CBBM Lectures "The intrinsinc reward associated to language learning "

by Antoni Rodriguez-Fornells, PhD,

Cognition and Brain Plasticity Unit,

ICREA- University of Barcelona,

IDIBELL - Institut de Investigació Biomèdica de Bellvitge


will take place on Tuesday, November 29, 2016 from 17:15 to 18:15 hours in CBBM Research Building, EG, Room 50/51.

Host: Prof. Ulrike Krämer
Department of Neurology
Universität zu Lübeck


During the last decade we have accrued important knowledge regarding the neural networks involved in the hard process of language acquisition (first and second-language learning). However, it is still unknown which are the neural process underlying the human drive to learn a language (or different languages) and the origin of the huge variability observed during this process. Recent theoretical models have proposed that during human evolution, emerging language-learning mechanisms might have been glued to phylogenetically older subcortical reward systems, reinforcing human motivation to learn a new language. Supporting this hypothesis we recently showed that adult learners exhibited robust functional MRI activation in the ventral striatum —a core region of reward processing —when successfully learning the meaning of new words. These results provided the first neural evidences of the important role of reward and motivation during language learning and supporting the idea that the strong  functional  and  anatomical coupling  between  neocortical  language  regions  and  the subcortical reward system provided a crucial advantage in humans that eventually enabled our lineage to successfully acquire linguistic skills. 

Furthermore, in a new set of experiments, we showed that internally or self-regulated language learning (no-feedback involved) boosted the activation of brain’s reward-memory circuit [substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area complex (SN/VTA), and the hippocampus (HP)]. Thus self-regulated learning is strongly coupled with subserving memory processes needed to ensure future recall success. A key question for the future is whether tapping into intrinsically rewarding forms of learning might be a more effective educational strategy than relying on external feedback and incentives. This could be crucial to improving the design of educational programs – for example, in teaching literacy and foreign languages – and for improving the recovery of verbal skills lost after stroke. 


·        Lopez-Barroso, D., Catani, M., Ripolles, P., Dell’Acqua, F., Rodriguez-Fornells, A., de Diego-Balaguer, R. (2013). Word learning is mediated by the left arcuate fasciculus. PNAS, 110, 13168-73.

·        Mestres-Misse, A., Rodriguez-Fornells, A., Münte, TF. (2007). Watching the brain during meaning acquisition. Cerebral Cortex, 17, 1858-1866.

·        Ripolles, P., Marco-Pallares, J., Hielscher, U., Mestres-Misse, A., Tempelmann, C., Heinze HJ., Rodriguez-Fornells, A., & Noesselt, T. (2014). The Role of Reward in Word Learning and its Implications for Language Acquisition. Current Biology, 24, 2606-2611.

·        Ripolles, P., Marco-Pallares, J., Alicart, H., Tempelmann, Rodriguez-Fornells, A., Noesselt, T. (2016). Intrinsic monitoring of learning success facilitates memory encoding via the activation of the SN/VTA-hippocampal loop. eLife, 5,e17441.

·        Rodriguez-Fornells, A., Cunillera, T., Mestres-Misse, A., de Diego Balaguer, R. (2009). Neurophysiological mechanisms involved in language learning in adults. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 364, 3711–3735.


My main focus of research has been on the cognitive neuroscience of language and executive functions, particularly on language learning, bilingual processing and human action monitoring (including human error detection and correction processes). In my research I have tried, whenever possible, to combine the use of different neuroimaging techniques in order to better understand human cognitive functions [specially using functional imaging techniques (Event-related brain potentials - ERPs and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, fMRI) and structural imaging techniques (e.g., Diffusion Tensor Imaging, DTI). During the last years I have been devoted to create a interdisciplinar research group (Cognition and Brain Plasticity Unit), at ICREA-IDIBELL-University of Barcelona devoted to the study of learning process and brain plasticity effects in healthy and brain damaged patients. The new group is located at one of the largest Hospitals in Barcelona (University Hospital of Bellvitge – IDIBELL biomedical institute) and works in close collaboration with the neurology and neurosurgery departments. Our research requires expertise in interfacing research fields as brain plasticity, brain development and learning and memory mechanisms (from different neuroscientific perspectives). During the last years, we have focused on the investigation of the neural mechanisms involved in language learning in adults and aphasic patients and its interface with executive functions (including the reward-motivational systems). We have recently reported interesting findings on the relation brain structure and brain function, and in which degree individual differences in white-matter connectivity in the brain constraints cognitive processing. Finally, we have been recently investigating the neurorehabilitation effects of learning specific skills on brain plasticity and reorganization in chronic and acute stroke patients.