Ursula Bellugi, a professor and director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience, is a pioneer in the study of the biological foundation of language. She is regarded as the founder of the neurobiology of American Sign Language, because her work was the first to show it is a true language, complete with grammar and syntax, and is processed by many of the same parts of the brain that process spoken language. Her work has led to the discovery that the left hemisphere of the human brain becomes specialized for languages, whether spoken or signed, a striking demonstration of neuronal plasticity.
Constantly seeking new avenues for understanding the ties between neural and cognitive functions, Bellugi is currently studying individuals with Williams Syndrome. This puzzling genetically based disorder leaves language, facial recognition and social skills remarkably well-preserved in contrast to severe inadequacy in other cognitive aptitudes. The search for the underlying biological basis for this disorder is providing new opportunities for understanding how brain structure and function relate to cognitive capabilities.