BMe Research Grant


Cognitive Team

ST. bldg, 3rd floor


Research Group

PhD School

As submitted in October 2010

Faculty of Sciences

Department of Cognitive Science

HAS-BME Cognitive Science Research Group

PhD School in Psychology


Cognitive Science is a novel way of investigating human knowledge and cognition, based on three complementary approaches: (1) Formal analysis of knowledge (perception, language, memory)  relying on the traditional disciplines of mathematics, philosophy and linguistics. (2) Analysis of  biological systems (that embody cognition) by  the experimental investigation of real biological cognitive systems, evolution of these systems, their neural organization and disturbances. (3) Analysis of cognition in terms of artificial systems.

Cognitive Team within the BME:

Members of the team are affiliated with the Psychology PhD School (since 2004), the Department of Cognitive Science (since 2004) or the HAS-BME Cognitive Science Research Group (since 2007). These three units were founded by Csaba Pleh (member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences), and are composed of young scientists working within the fields of cognitive neuroscience and psycholinguistics.



Binocular vision (stereopsis) emerges at 3 months of age in typically developing human babies. Functional binocularity is based on clearly defined anatomical changes within the visual cortex, such as the development of binocular cortical neurons detecting retinal disparities and the formation of ocular dominance columns. What happens during those three months? Is it a genetically preprogrammed wiring of the cortex ('Nature') or a stimulus-defined modification of neural connections ('Nurture')? We attempt to answer this question by investigating preterm babies who are given two extra months of stimulation on average. Is it their real or corrected postnatal age that determines the onset of stereopsis? We employ dynamic noise stimuli with alternating phases of correlation and decorrelation between the two eyes, and register visually evoked brain potentials (VEP) in order to find an answer. The VEP binocular response clearly shows that preterm infants make full use of the extra 2 months of stimulation, and their binocular response is there at 3 months after birth as well ('Nurture'). This indicates that the human cortex is much more plastic and stimulus-dependent than we thought before! This work is carried out in collaboration with Dr. Gabor Jando (Pécs University), and the paper is under review in Science. We plan to further investigate whether increased plasticity is due to human-specific learning mechanisms or to differences in the macrostructure of the cortex by applying near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). We are looking for support for purchasing the NIRS equipment.

PI: Ilona Kovács

Books under the pillow?... the story of SLEEP and LEARNING

The HAS-BME Research Group in Cognitive Science investigates relationship between sleep and learning with OTKA and NIMH support. Building upon earlier work of the group leader, the research group is looking at perceptual and motor skill learning in people living with genetically based developmental disorders and in typically developing people. As they have shown before, cortical mechanisms defining fine perceptual discrimination and motor skill learning take a long time, even decades in humans to become fully mature. The human cortex is extremely sensitive to environmental stimulation and epigenetic influences during this long plastic period. It is important to define all the factors promoting and delaying development because these will help to encourage healthy development (education), and to correct atypical developmental directions (medication). People with developmental disorders and mental retardation pose a difficult burden on society, cannot lead an independent life, and long-term care of these patients and their families has to be provided. Our research offers help in two ways: (1) early diagnosis and the possibility of effective early therapy, (2) improvement of severe problems by defining epigenetic (e.g., sleep patterns) and behavioral components of the disorder that can be improved by different medical treatments. Quality of life in these populations might improve due to the treatments, and they might become independent and self-supporting citizens. In a modern, generally sleep-deprived society, there are consequences of this research with respect to the typically developing population as well.

Developmental and learning profiles, related to the plasticity of the primary visual cortex (V1) and primary motor cortex (M1) were derived from psychophysical studies of low level visual (using the  contour stimuli embedded in noise – see illustration) and motor learning. This provides us with the possibility to predict whether the origin of learning deficits is (1) structural disorganization of the cortex, (2) sleep disorder, or (3) both. To test our predictions, we have already started to look at the correlations between behavioral data and the micropattern of sleep as measured by electrophysiology. These results paint a very sophisticated picture, going well beyond the idea of general pervasive learning deficits. We are able to point to specific cortical mechanisms behind learning problems, opening up possibilities for new therapies. The results are being published in the Journal of Vision,   Developmental Science and the Journal of Developmental Disorders. As a next step, we already started to collect genetic samples in the atypically developing population, and plan using cortical imaging techniques  as well (MRI, fMRI, DTI). The amount of gene-deletion and the location of cortical anatomical changes in particular individuals might reveal novel functional relationships between genes and behavior. We are seeking support for the genetic and brain imaging studies.

PI: Ilona Kovács

What's talking? Organization of AUDITORY information in the human brain

At the HAS Psychology Research Institute, under Dr István Winkler's supervision, students of the BME Psychology PhD School carry out research on auditory perception. One of the outstanding projects focuses on the sensitivity of newborn human babies to music. Based on the supervisor's earlier work, their most recent studies are related to the organization of incoming sensory information into object representations. The concept of an object is not so clear in audition. With respect to storage, both the sound source (physical object) and the sound pattern (melody, speech etc.) are units with object-like properties (having its own features, can be differentiated from other objects, can be recognized by its different occurrences and missing information is completed – similarly to what happens in vision). Moreover, signals from simultaneously active sound sources get mixed together even before arriving to both ears. In order to solve the inverse problem, i.e. the problem of object separation, the brain relies on heuristics that are either inherited or learned during our life. The process of object separation is usually studied in a simplified ABA-sound sequence, where 'A' and 'B' are two different sounds, and the '-' mark represents a break of the same duration as a sound. Depending on the difference between the two sounds and on the pace of presentation, one may perceive a single coherent sound stream or two parallel streams (sound illustration). It has been shown recently that with a long exposure (exceeding two minutes) to such stimuli, there is a parameter-independent switching back and forth between the two organizations. Because we do not experience such instability in everyday life, the question is what mechanisms stabilize perception. As a next step, we plan to compare auditory and visual perceptual organization and include them in a common model. We are seeking support for the development of the integrative visual-auditory model of perceptual organization.

PI: Istvan Winkler.

Are there two kinds of schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is one of the biggest common health problems all over the world, an illness studied with enormous financial efforts. As the substantial pathological processes are not clear, there is no causal therapy yet. One of the essential reasons of the failure of research is that validity of the studied phenomenal construction is insufficient. At present, the phenotype is signified by the diagnosis based on clinical symptoms, however, the concept of the diagnostic systems is oversimplified. Our systematic preliminary studies carried out in collaboration with the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Szeged have identified two clusters within the illness.
Anticipated results of this project are the development of a phenotype determination method, international publications as well as manual on the neurobiological aspects of psychotic mental disorders.
Our basic research can help refining target determination of etiological studies and development of specific therapeutic and rehabilitation methods. It can also help identifying developmental markers that are detectable before the manifestation of psychotic symptoms.
We are looking for support for building up the Hungarian genetic bank of patients with schizophrenia. We are also looking for support for purchasing an eyetracking equipment.

PI: Mihály Racsmány

Is it only language? Learning in SPECIFIC LANGUAGE IMPAIRMENT

Children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) have a primary deficit in language abilities in the absence of any hearing deficits, neurological disorders, emotional and social problems, environmental deprivation or mental retardation that could account for their language problems. Although there are claims that in SLI, language is selectively impaired in an otherwise intact cognitive system, numerous results show that SLI is often associated with impairments in several nonlinguistic domains, but the nature, extent and generality of these deficits is yet unclear, as is their relationship with language abilities. After examining language abilities in Hungarian children with SLI in detail, currently our research group is working on testing procedural learning of sequential and nonsequential information in children with Specific Language Impairment, and aims to study its relationship with language abilities (both with grammar and vocabulary). Possible dissociations between mechanisms and domains of procedural learning are going to be tested by using three different classical paradigms of implicit learning, Artificial Grammar Learning (AGL), Serial Reaction Time Task (SRT) and Probabilistic Category Learning (PCL). So far our results show that children with SLI, unlike their age-matched typically developing peers, do not show learning in the  probabilistic task. This result points to deficits beyond the language system, and also beyond problems with sequential organization. Preliminary results also show impaired artificial grammar learning (based on auditory sentences generated by made-up rules from nonsense syllables), but preserved learning in learning the sequence of locations in the SRT task. Further investigations aim at making the mechanisms of learning in the nonlinguistic domain and their relationship to language clearer.

PI: Ágnes Lukács

Can the computer process METHAPHORs?

One of the key research areas in computational linguistics is the automatic semantic analysis of natural language. An exceptionally difficult problem is processing those aspects of meaning that do not predictably follow from the dictionary senses of words and sentential syntax. It is this problem that our project explores through the corpus-based analysis of literal versus typically abstract metaphorical language use. Our research focuses on the question whether automatic identification of certain conceptual metaphors could be successful taking the processes advocated by the Embodiment Hypothesis as a starting point. 12 widespread conceptual metaphors were selected where consistent mapping was observed between a concrete (source) domain and an abstract (target) domain. According to our hypothesis, a metaphoric sentence should include both source-domain and target-domain expressions. This assumption was tested relying on three different methods of selecting target-domain and source-domain expressions: a) a psycholinguistic word association method, b) a dictionary method and c) a corpus-based method, where the words were manually selected from sentences containing conceptual metaphors. Our results show that for the automatic identification of metaphorical expressions, corpus-based method is the most effective strategy, which suggests that the concept of source and target domains is best characterized by statistical patterns rather than by psycholinguistic factors. To be able to characterize the precise nature of these statistical patterns and the process of metaphor comprehension further experimental and corpus analysis data are needed. 

PI: Anna Babarczy

Outstanding publications

5 outstanding publications over the past 5 years:

5 outstanding papers published before 2005:

The team-members:

Csaba Pléh, MTA r. tag

Gyula Kovács, DSc

Mihály Racsmány, habil PhD