Prof. Laurent Cohen from the Brain & Spine Institute (Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle épinière—ICM) and Dr Marcin Szwed, a professor at the Institute of Psychology at Jagiellonian University, have received the Maria Skłodowska and Pierre Curie Polish–French Scientific Award for joint research analysing brain mechanisms of reading: their neuronal foundations, genesis, and intercultural and intermodal nature.

Description of joint research

The cooperation between Prof. Laurent Cohen and Dr Marcin Szwed began in 2007 and has resulted in experiments in the field of neurobiology reported by them in seven articles.

The researchers decided to examine how visual mechanisms condition neuronal mechanisms of the skill of reading. They showed that groups of neurons in the visual cortex appear to specialize in reading text, and that this phenomenon does not depend on the persons’ culture or writing system. This was a groundbreaking discovery that has had a strong impact on this field of science.

The researchers have also conducted experiments concerning the genesis of the field of reading in the brain, relying on behavioural methods combined with functional imaging using the magnetic resonance method. In their research they sought to find out why, despite the absence in our brains of a separate system responsible for the skill of reading, when reading it is always the same centre in our brain that is repeatedly activated, regardless of whether we are using, for example, the Latin alphabet or Chinese characters.

After the first series of articles by Szwed and Cohen, along with Prof. Stanislas Dehaene, cooperating with them, they showed that in blind persons, reading using the Braille alphabet stimulates the same visual fields as reading by sighted persons. This was a breakthrough, as it turned out that the cortical specialization of the brain arises from the specific nature of the task: the visual portion of the brain’s cortex learned to read Braille even though it might be expected that this task would be assumed by the tactile portion. The experiment showed that the brain is more flexible than scientists had previously assumed, and the areas of the cortex responsible for sight or hearing can adapt to receive information from other senses. This opened the path to further research, which showed that the human brain is permanently divided into separate regions responsible for example for sight, hearing, and reading, and this division is fixed and unchanging, but the flexibility of the adult brain is much greater than previously believed.

The researchers’ cooperation has led to the establishment of an innovative research programme exploring the genesis of reading skills, and more generally the neuronal foundations of the human cognitive apparatus. They have pursued this programme for years, making it the foundation for Polish/French scientific exchange at the doctoral level, for writing joint doctoral theses and organizing conferences and other forms of cooperation.

About the laureates

Prof. Laurent Cohen_fot. Archiwum prywatne

Pictured: Prof. Laurent Cohen, photo: private archive

Prof. Laurent Cohen (born in 1960 in Paris) is a professor of neurology at the University of Paris and at the Brain & Spine Institute (ICM) at Pitié–Salpêtrière University Hospital in Paris. Prof. Cohen also heads a research team at the institute. He holds doctorates in medicine and cognitive science.

His research is devoted to mechanisms of the higher cognitive functions of the human brain, particularly those associated with language and reading. Among other projects, Prof. Cohen conducts research involving patients with brain damage, combining concepts and methods from experimental psychology and neuropsychology with the latest morphological and functional technologies of neuroimaging. He is the author of over 120 publications, which have been cited over 38,000 times.

Apart from his scientific work, Prof. Cohen is actively involved in popular-science initiatives, promoting knowledge of cognitive neuroscience in society.

Marcin Szwed_fot. Agnieszka Fiejka_UJ
Pictured: Dr Marcin Szwed / photo: Agnieszka Fiejka, Jagiellonian University

Dr Marcin Szwedprofessor of Jagiellonian University (born in 1976) studied biology at Jagiellonian University and earned his doctorate in 2006 at the Department of Neurobiology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. He continued his scientific work in a fellowship in France, working with Prof. Stanislas Dehaene (Inserm Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit, Saclay) and Laurent Cohen (Brain & Spine Institute, Pitié–Salpêtrière University Hospital, Paris). In 2011 he returned to Poland and created a research team at the Institute of Psychology at Jagiellonian University, conducting research on mechanisms of perception. He earned his postdoctoral (habilitation) degree in 2012. He is a laureate of the HOMING PLUS and TEAM-NET programmes of the Foundation for Polish Science. He received the National Science Centre (NCN) Prize in 2016. He is the author of 27 publications, which have received over 1,300 citations.