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LRC celebrates 25 years of research

Wednesday, February 14, 2007 – Ann Claycombe

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When Georgia State's Language Research Center started in 1981, the question driving its researchers was whether animals can learn a language. The center was at the forefront of research proving that, yes, some can. Three of its resident chimpanzees use symbols to communicate with researchers and their caretakers via specially made computer keyboards.

Now, as the center wraps up last year’s celebration of its 25th anniversary, its scientists ask a slightly different question. "What is it that language allows animals to do?" asks David Washburn, the LRC's director.

The answers are still turning heads in the scientific world. A survey of the most recent research methods and data was published last year in honor of the LRC’s founding director, Duane Rumbaugh. The book, Primate Perspectives on Behavior and Cognition, not only recognizes the work already being done, but suggests avenues of future research in years to come. The volume was released to coincide with a 25th-anniversary symposium presented by the LRC at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. Also, an animal-studies-themed issue of the Journal of General Psychology – due out in April - will feature three separate articles by LRC researchers.

Washburn and his colleagues work with four separate primate species in the search for answers: chimpanzees, rhesus macaques, capuchin monkeys and humans. Their research is not only changing scientific views of animal intelligence, but, more specifically, views of how human intelligence develops as well.

The capuchins are the center’s most recent addition. Nine young monkeys moved to the center in July 2005 and immediately began to learn the joystick system that also allows the rhesus macaques to do simple, computer-based cognitive tests.

Because the capuchins are much smaller than the other primates at the LRC, researchers can compare how different competencies arise from brains of different sizes and structures, says Washburn. Another distinction is that the capuchins are native to South America, while chimpanzees come from Africa and rhesus macaques from Asia. The differences allow researchers to explore which mental abilities are common to all primates and which evolved to meet the needs of a particular environment.

"We want to make statements about brains and behavior," Washburn says. "The more different species you use in that comparison, the less likely it is you'll make mistakes."

The capuchins are exciting newcomers, but the four chimpanzees are currently taking part in the most exciting research. Researchers are building on their language skills to explore topics like stating the number of items in a group and delaying gratification.

Experiments like this continue to provide new insight into the way animals think, including the human animal. Through their work, LRC scientists are deepening our understanding of humans' common ground with our closest genetic relatives and, consequently, the relationship between specific nervous systems and behaviors.

Rumbaugh followed the bonobos to Iowa, but returned for the anniversary to celebrate and be celebrated. "It's really rewarding to see the LRC doing so well," he says. "I expect it to have a bright future."