About Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto

Petitto Headshot_Oct 2013-1Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto is a Cognitive Neuroscientist and a Developmental Cognitive Neuroscientist widely known for her discoveries about the biological foundations of language. She has uncovered key brain structures underlying early human language processing and, with brain imaging technology called functional Near-infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS), she has tracked the typical and atypical development of these brain structures across the human lifespan (infants through adults; Scientific Contributions).

Presently, Dr. Petitto is the Science Director and Co-Principal Investigator of the National Science Foundation and Gallaudet University’s Science of Learning Center, Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2). She is also the Scientific Director of The Brain and Language Laboratory for Neuroimaging (BL2).

Dr. Petitto is known for her work on the biological bases of language, especially involving early language acquisition. Her studies on this topic span 30 years, beginning in 1973 with her research at Columbia University in which she attempted to teach sign language to a baby chimpanzee (“Project Nim Chimpsky”). She is presently known for her discoveries concerning how young human children acquire language, be it spoken or signed, and she has also probed the neural basis of language in the brain of adults using modern PET, MRI, fMRI, and functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) brain-imaging techniques. Taken together, her research points to the existence of select tissue in the human brain that helps young babies learn language, for example, the Superior Temporal Gyrus (STG)—tissue vital for young babies’ phonological segmentation of the linguistic stream around them. Taken together, the major contribution of Petitto’s scientific writings have been to offer both testable hypotheses and theory regarding the neural basis for the brain’s specialization for human language (be it signed or spoken), how it is possible for very young babies to acquire language, and the translational means by which we can take the fruits of this research and apply it to the education and betterment of children’s lives.

In Detail

Petitto is also known for her discoveries involving animal language and animal communication in chimpanzees, following from her groundbreaking roles as Primary/Head Teacher and Project Coordinator of “Project Nim Chimpsky”, at Columbia University. She lived with the chimp and attempted to teach it sign language as his primary surrogate mother. As a result, Petitto and her colleagues have authored several of the world’s influential scholarly articles on the ape and human minds.

Petitto is further known for her discoveries about Bilingualism and the Bilingual Brain. She has identified the neural tissue and systems in the human baby’s brain when it is acquiring one language versus two languages. Petitto is also known for her discoveries about Reading and the Reading Brain. She has studied monolingual and bilingual children when they first begin to Read, achieve skilled Reading, and when monolingual and bilingual adults Read and process language. Her body of work includes the discovery of babbling on the hands in Deaf children exposed to signed languages (Manual Babbling), studies of the brain-based systems that govern mouth asymmetries in hearing children’s vocal babbling, the maturational timing of bilingual children’s achievement of the classic language milestones, and the similarities and differences between all children’s early gestures and early language (first words, pronouns). Petitto has further made fundamental discoveries involving the acquisition, grammar, and brain organization of the signed languages of Deaf people, in particular, American Sign Language. Petitto is widely known for advancing a testable theory about the biological and environmental factors that, together, make possible human language acquisition. Petitto has also played a pivotal role in the creation of a new scientific discipline, called Educational Neuroscience, otherwise known as Mind, Brain, and Education, which applies core discoveries in the developmental brain sciences to prevailing problems in education.

Petitto is the author of over 100 scholarly articles, the winner of 3 major awards for her outstanding teaching, and the recipient of over 25 international prizes and awards for her scientific discoveries, including the 1998 Guggenheim Award for her “unusually distinguished achievements in the past and exceptional promise for future accomplishment in the discipline of Neuroscience.” In February 2009, she was appointed Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), as well as Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS).

Petitto received her Masters and Doctoral degrees from Harvard University in 1981 and 1984 (respectively) and built a vibrant laboratory in Cognitive Neuroscience at McGill University (Montreal, Quebec) before moving to Dartmouth College in 2001. In fall 2007, Petitto continued her research at the University of Toronto, and she has held her exciting posts as Science Director and Co-Principal Investigator of the NSF Science of Learning Center VL2 as well as the Scientific Director of BL2 since Summer 2011.

Educational Neuroscience

Dr. Petitto is one of the co-founders of Gallaudet University’s PhD in Educational Neuroscience with Dr. Thomas Allen and Dr. Melissa Herzig—a new scientific discipline that Petitto first helped to found with Dr. Kevin Dunbar at Dartmouth College in 2001. In her role as Chair, Petitto built Dartmouth College’s first Department of Educational Neuroscience and Human Development, in addition to co-authoring and serving as Co-PI of Dartmouth’s NSF Science of Learning Center called “Center for Cognitive and Educational Neuroscience.”


At Gallaudet, Dr. Petitto and her outstanding research team are exploring the nature of the STG brain tissue and its role in early normal language development, atypical language development, and she has recently launched an especially intensive series of studies to explore the Bilingual and the Reading Brain.

She is the Scientific Director of the Brain and Language Laboratory, BL2, supported by Gallaudet University, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. In this lab, Petitto and her team of undergraduates, graduate students, and post-docs study the neural processing of American Sign Language (ASL), how children learn to read, and the effects of early bilingual language exposure on the developing brain and its functions. Petitto came to Gallaudet University in Summer 2011, when she was recruited to be the Co-Principal Investigator as well as the Science Director of one of six National Science Foundation Science of Learning Centers in the United States, which is located at Gallaudet University, the“Visual Language and Visual Learning Center (VL2).” Petitto is also a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Gallaudet University as well as an Affiliated Professor in the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University. The relationship between the NSF Science of Learning Center, VL2, and the Brain and Language Laboratory, BL2, is a strong and important one. The VL2 Center members collaborate with approximately 15 labs spanning the United States and Canada, each of which focuses on different aspects of visual processing, language, and literacy, as well as innovative translation. The BL2 lab is one of those labs.