Advisory Board

Dr. Li-Hai Tan

The Wall Street Journal article How the Brain Learns to Read Can Depend on the Language said

For generations, scholars have debated whether language constrains the ways we think. Now, neuroscientists studying reading disorders have begun to wonder whether the actual character of the text itself may shape the brain.
Studies of schoolchildren who read in varying alphabets and characters suggest that those who are dyslexic in one language, say Chinese or English, may not be in another, such as Italian.
Among children raised to read and write Chinese, the demands of reading draw on parts of the brain untouched by the English alphabet, new neuroimaging studies reveal. It’s the same with dyslexia, psychologist Li Hai Tan at Hong Kong Research University and his colleagues reported last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The problems occur in areas not involved in reading other alphabets.

Li-Hai Tan, Ph.D. is Professor, School of Humanities (Linguistics), Hong Kong University (HKU), and Co-Director & Founding Director, State Key Lab of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS), Hong Kong University (HKU). Li-Han founded the State Key Laboratory of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Hong Kong in 2005.
Li-Hai is also an adjunct Associate Professor of Department of Pediatrics at Georgetown University Medical Center and adjunct Professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Graduate School. He currently serves as an associate editor of the journal Human Brain Mapping and an editorial board member of the Journal of Neurolinguistics.
His main research interest is the use of neuroimaging (both fMRI and PET) and cognitive techniques to investigate neuroanatomical and cognitive mechanisms underlying language processing, language learning, memory, and attention. The studies conducted by Li-Hai and his collaborators have shown that the left middle frontal gyrus responsible for verbal working memory critically mediates Chinese character recognition, whereas the left posterior temporoparietal regions critical for English reading are less involved in Chinese reading.
He has also demonstrated that the neural systems for Chinese and English reading are shaped by learning experience of the two written languages and that activity levels of the left middle frontal cortex serve as a neurobiological marker of Chinese dyslexia. His current work is focused on the study of functions of left middle frontal gyrus in Chinese reading and how language interacts with perception at the neuroanatomical level.
Li-Hai authored The neuroanatomical system underlying Chinese reading and its constraints on second language learning, coauthored A structural—functional basis for dyslexia in the cortex of Chinese readers, Language affects patterns of brain activation associated with perceptual decision, Reading depends on writing, in Chinese, Neuroanatomical correlates of phonological processing of Chinese characters and alphabetic words: A meta-analysis, Biological abnormality of impaired reading is constrained by culture, and Brain activation in the processing of Chinese characters and words: A functional MRI study, and edited The Handbook of East Asian Psycholinguistics: Volume 1, Chinese. Read the full list of his publications!
Li-Hai earned his Ph.D. in psycholinguistics from the University of Hong Kong in 1995. Following postdoctoral research training in Learning Research and Development Center of the University of Pittsburgh, he started to work in this University in 1999. In the past few years, he has performed research in the field of reading and reading disorders at the University of Hong Kong, the Research Imaging Center of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, the University of Pittsburgh, and with the Intramural Research Programs of the National Institute of Mental Health of NIH.