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Scans Show The Brain Treats Sign Language Like Speech

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Aired 2/22/10

A San Diego State University linguist says spoken language and sign language use the brain in very much the same way.

— A San Diego State University linguist says spoken language and sign language use the brain in very much the same way.

Professor Karen Emmorey used PET scans to see how the brains of deaf people functioned during the use of sign language. She found that the "speech production" part of the brain was as active in people signing as in people speaking. She said this was true even when deaf people used signs that appeared to be pantomime, like the sign for the verb "drink."

"So even signs may look like panomimes, those signs are treated by the brain just the same as signs that don't have the pantomimic quality," said Emmorey.

Tests showed that a different part of the brain was activated by gestures or by pantomime in both the deaf and the hearing. Emmorey said the simple message of her research is that sign language is a language, not a series of gestures. She presented her research at the conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the San Diego Convention Center.

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