Researcher uses MRIs to explore the intricate processes involved in reading

Jacqueline Cummine was drawn to the University of Alberta by its neuroscience community and cutting-edge research facilities.

21 April 2023

Jacqueline Cummine is a professor with the Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. Her research focuses on reading and writing. She is interested in exploring what makes skilled readers change their approaches to reading, how and when reading breaks down, and the role that sensory systems play in reading proficiency and impairment. She is also researching how the speech-motor system shapes the way people with reading, hearing and/or speech impairments acquire, refine and maintain reading skills, and the impact of reading impairments on social well-being.

Cummine is a member of the Alberta Cognitive Neuroscience Group and the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute (NMHI), and is a research affiliate with the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital. She received her PhD in cognitive neuropsychology from the University of Saskatchewan.


Can you tell me about your area of research?

I study the behavioural and neural signatures associated with skilled and impaired reading.

To see neural signatures, we scan the brains of subjects while they're reading. We've done functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies, where they are reading while they're in the machine, and we've also done resting state MRI, which is just having them in the machine but not doing anything. This way we look at the kind of intrinsic connections that are going on in reading network areas.

One of our ongoing studies is called the lollipop and lidocaine study. We believed that the mouth plays a role in learning to read, because if you think about a child who's learning to read, they have a teacher showing them words or showing them letters and telling them how they sound and how to say them, and then the child will repeat it back. The child is storing the way to say the words at the same time that they're learning to read the words. So we started to think, “Why not see if we can disrupt the mouth and change reading performance?”

We took a group of adults without reading impairment and we gave them some large lollipops. They had to hold them in their mouths, then we asked them to do a silent reading task. The lollipop made people read faster, which is completely opposite to what we expected.

Then we thought, “Well, if we're enhancing the system, maybe that's why people are getting faster. Let's see what happens if we take it offline.” So we used lidocaine to numb the subjects’ mouths and did it again. This also made people faster.

Now we really weren’t sure what was happening. We did one more series in this experiment, where we put a candy stick between their teeth, and that didn’t impact their reading, so we think there's something about the tongue that is being utilized in some way to inform people's decisions about word and non-word judgments.

We’re now in the process of doing a functional imaging study to find out the locus of these effects at the neural level — to find if they’re happening at the location of the mouth, which would be along the motor cortex, or at the level of the somatosensory information, which would be a bit more posterior into the parietal cortex. Or if it’s some combination of both.

We have no idea what we're going to see.

How did you find yourself in this area?

I was finishing up my honours degree in psychology at the University of Saskatchewan when a friend convinced me to do a PhD. The supervisor I found was doing work with MRIs, so I just jumped in head first!

What brought you to the University of Alberta?

The neuroscience community was ultimately what brought me here. They have amazing facilities at the U of A with respect to MRI, including a dedicated research centre that houses three MRI machines.

What do you find the most rewarding about the work you do?

The students. I always build these small armies of students to work with, because they are extremely enthusiastic about research.

Is there anything about your work that you find particularly difficult?

Programming computers. That's something I try to instil in the students: You don't need to have millions of dollars of research funding to be able to work with brain imaging; there are lots of places to download free software for that, but then you do have to navigate it. That can become a nightmare at times because you need so many multiple programs working together, running together.

What do you want your lab to be working on in the next five years?

I would like to have a remediation study with respect to individuals with dyslexia. It's very difficult to get individuals to come in and commit to these large studies, but if I could trial a long-term treatment or remediation that might support an adult with dyslexia, that would be pretty remarkable.