Brain Structure of Infants Predicts Language Skills at One Year

Jan. 22, 2013 — Using a brain-imaging technique that examines the entire infant brain, researchers have found that the anatomy of certain brain areas – the hippocampus and cerebellum – can predict children’s language abilities at 1 year of age.

The University of Washington study is the first to associate these brain structures with future language skills. The results are published in the January issue of the journal Brain and Language.

“The brain of the baby holds an infinite number of secrets just waiting to be uncovered, and these discoveries will show us why infants learn languages like sponges, far surpassing our skills as adults,” said co-author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

Children’s language skills soar after they reach their first birthdays, but little is known about how infants’ early brain development seeds that path. Identifying which brain areas are related to early language learning could provide a first glimpse of development going awry, allowing for treatments to begin earlier.

“Infancy may be the most important phase of postnatal brain development in humans,” said Dilara Deniz Can, lead author and a UW postdoctoral researcher. “Our results showing brain structures linked to later language ability in typically developing infants is a first step toward examining links to brain and behavior in young children with linguistic, psychological and social delays.”

In the study, the researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brain structure of a mix of 19 boys and girls at 7 months of age. The researchers used a measurement called voxel-based morphometry to determine the concentration of gray matter, consisting of nerve cells, and of white matter, which make up the network of connections throughout the brain.

The study is the first to relate the outcomes of this whole-brain imaging technique to predict future ability in infants. The whole-brain approach freed the researchers from having to select a few brain regions for study ahead of time, ones scientists might have expected to be involved based on adult data.

Five months later, when the children were about 1 year old they returned to the lab for a language test. This test included measures of the children’s babbling, recognition of familiar names and words, and their ability to produce different types of sounds.

“At this age, children typically don’t say many words,” Deniz Can said. “So we rely on babbling and the ability to comprehend language as a sign of early language mastery.”

Infants with a greater concentration of gray and white matter in the cerebellum and the hippocampus showed greater language ability at age 1. This is the first study to identify a relationship between language and the cerebellum and hippocampus in infants. Neither brain area is well-known for its role in language: the cerebellum is typically linked to motor learning, while the hippocampus is commonly recognized as a memory processor.

“Looking at the whole brain produced a surprising result and scientists live for surprises. It wasn’t the language areas of the infant brain that predicted their future linguistic skills, but instead brain areas linked to motor abilities and memory processing,” Kuhl said. “Infants have to listen and memorize the sound patterns used by the people in their culture, and then coax their own mouths and tongues to make these sounds in order join the social conversation and get a response from their parents.”

The findings could reflect infants’ abilities to master the motor planning for speech and to develop the memory requirements for keeping the sound patterns in mind.

“The brain uses many general skills to learn language,” Kuhl said. “Knowing which brain regions are linked to this early learning could help identify children with developmental disabilities and provide them with early interventions that will steer them back toward a typical developmental path.”

Todd Richards, a UW professor of radiology, was another co-author. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Santa Fe Institute Consortium.


 
 

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byUniversity of Washington. The original article was written by Molly McElroy.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.


Journal Reference:

  1. Dilara Deniz Can, Todd Richards, Patricia K. Kuhl. Early gray-matter and white-matter concentration in infancy predict later language skills: A whole brain voxel-based morphometry studyBrain and Language, 2013; 124 (1): 34 DOI: 10.1016/j.bandl.2012.10.007
University of Washington (2013, January 22). Brain structure of infants predicts language skills at one year. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130122142850.htm

Let Crying Babes Lie: Study Supports Notion of Leaving Infants to Cry Themselves Back to Sleep

Jan. 2, 2013 — Today, mothers of newborns find themselves confronting a common dilemma: Should they let their babies “cry it out” when they wake up at night? Or should they rush to comfort their crying little one?

Today, mothers of newborns find themselves confronting a common dilemma: Should they let their babies “cry it out” when they wake up at night? Or should they rush to comfort their crying little one? (Credit: © Mitarart / Fotolia)

In fact, waking up in the middle of the night is the most common concern that parents of infants report to pediatricians. Now, a new study from Temple psychology professor Marsha Weinraub gives parents some scientific facts to help with that decision.

The study, published in Developmental Psychology, supports the idea that a majority of infants are best left to self-soothe and fall back to sleep on their own.

“By six months of age, most babies sleep through the night, awakening their mothers only about once per week. However, not all children follow this pattern of development,” said Weinraub, an expert on child development and parent-child relationships.

For the study, Weinraub and her colleagues measured patterns of nighttime sleep awakenings in infants ages six to 36 months. Her findings revealed two groups: sleepers and transitional sleepers.

“If you measure them while they are sleeping, all babies — like all adults — move through a sleep cycle every 1 1/2 to 2 hours where they wake up and then return to sleep,” said Weinraub. “Some of them do cry and call out when they awaken, and that is called ‘not sleeping through the night.'”

For the study, Weinraub’s team asked parents of more than 1,200 infants to report on their child’s awakenings at 6, 15, 24 and 36 months. They found that by six months of age, 66 percent of babies — the sleepers — did not awaken, or awoke just once per week, following a flat trajectory as they grew. But a full 33 percent woke up seven nights per week at six months, dropping to two nights by 15 months and to one night per week by 24 months.

Of the babies that awoke, the majority were boys. These transitional sleepers also tended to score higher on an assessment of difficult temperament which identified traits such as irritability and distractibility. And, these babies were more likely to be breastfed. Mothers of these babies were more likely to be depressed and have greater maternal sensitivity.

The findings suggest a couple of things, said Weinraub. One is that genetic or constitutional factors such as those that might be reflected in difficult temperaments appear implicated in early sleep problems. “Families who are seeing sleep problems persist past 18 months should seek advice,” Weinraub said.

Another takeaway is that it is important for babies to learn how to fall asleep on their own. “When mothers tune in to these night time awakenings and/or if a baby is in the habit of falling asleep during breastfeeding, then he or she may not be learning to how to self-soothe, something that is critical for regular sleep,” she said.

According to Weinraub, the mechanism by which maternal depression is connected to infant awakenings is an area that would benefit from further research. On the one hand, Weinraub said, it’s possible that mothers who are depressed at six and 36 months may have been depressed during pregnancy and that this prenatal depression could have affected neural development and sleep awakenings. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that sleep deprivation can, of course, exacerbate maternal depression, she said.

“Because the mothers in our study described infants with many awakenings per week as creating problems for themselves and other family members, parents might be encouraged to establish more nuanced and carefully targeted routines to help babies with self-soothing and to seek occasional respite,” said Weinraub.

“The best advice is to put infants to bed at a regular time every night, allow them to fall asleep on their own and resist the urge to respond right away to awakenings.”


Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byTemple University, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.


Journal Reference:

  1. Marsha Weinraub, Randall H. Bender, Sarah L. Friedman, Elizabeth J. Susman, Bonnie Knoke, Robert Bradley, Renate Houts, Jason Williams. Patterns of developmental change in infants’ nighttime sleep awakenings from 6 through 36 months of age..Developmental Psychology, 2012; 48 (6): 1511 DOI:10.1037/a0027680
Temple University (2013, January 2). Let crying babes lie: Study supports notion of leaving infants to cry themselves back to sleep.ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 3, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130102161811.htm

If Baby’s Crawling, You’ll Probably Be Up More at Night, Study Reveals

Jan. 2, 2013 — Infants who have started crawling wake up more often at night compared to the period before the crawling, reveals a new study by Dr. Dina Cohen of the University of Haifa’s Department of Counseling and Human Development.


The doctoral study, conducted under the supervision of Prof. Anat Scher, observed 28 healthy babies who were developing normally, examining them once every two to three weeks. Their motor development and sleeping habits were monitored from age 4-5 months and continued until age 11 months. Their sleep patterns were measured by a device called an ActiGraph that provides objective evaluations of sleep patterns, taken together with parental reports from diaries and questionnaires. The infants’ crawling development and progress was observed and videoed by the researcher.

The study showed that the average age for the babies to begin crawling was 7 months, and that this was accompanied by an increase in the number of times they woke up at night, from an average of 1.55 times per night to 1.98 times (based on the ActiGraph measurements). The incidents of wakefulness also lasted longer, about 10 minutes on average, as per parental reports.

The study also found that the scope and complexity of the changes — which included waking more frequently and moving around a lot during asleep — were more pronounced among those who started crawling earlier. By contrast, those who started to crawl later demonstrated only one change: waking up more frequently.

The good news for parents: Within three months from the day crawling begins, the baby will generally return to the sleep patterns from before acquiring the new motor skill.

According to Dr. Cohen, there are a number of reasons why starting to crawl and wakefulness could be linked. “It is possible that crawling, which involves a vast range of changes and psychological reorganization in the babies’ development, increases their level of arousal, influences their ability to regulate themselves and causes a period of temporary instability that expresses itself in waking up more frequently,” she suggests.

Increased restlessness in babies who crawl early, she says, could be attributed to the baby’s expressing fears of being physically distanced from the mother before fully developing the psychological mechanisms to cope with separation effectively. “This fear is likely to be expressed in sleep interruptions during the night,” she explained.

“With ongoing monitoring of babies’ development, we can demonstrate that the increased awakenings are a temporary short-term phenomenon, which occurs as part of a wider process of the baby’s gradually improving ability to regulate states of sleep and wakefulness,” adds Dr. Cohen.


Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byUniversity of Haifa.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.


University of Haifa (2013, January 2). If baby’s crawling, you’ll probably be up more at night, study reveals. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 3, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130102104555.htm

Infants’ Recognition of Speech More Sophisticated Than Previously Known

ScienceDaily (July 17, 2012) — The ability of infants to recognize speech is more sophisticated than previously known, researchers in New York University’s Department of Psychology have found. Their study, which appears in the journal Developmental Psychology, showed that infants, as early as nine months old, could make distinctions between speech and non-speech sounds in both humans and animals.


“Our results show that infant speech perception is resilient and flexible,” explained Athena Vouloumanos, an assistant professor at NYU and the study’s lead author. “This means that our recognition of speech is more refined at an earlier age than we’d thought.”

It is well-known that adults’ speech perception is fine-tuned — they can detect speech among a range of ambiguous sounds. But much less is known about the capability of infants to make similar assessments. Understanding when these abilities become instilled would shed new light on how early in life we develop the ability to recognize speech.

In order to gauge the aptitude to perceive speech at any early age, the researchers examined the responses of infants, approximately nine months in age, to recorded human and parrot speech and non-speech sounds. Human (an adult female voice) and parrot speech sounds included the words “truck,” “treat,” “dinner,” and “two.” The adult non-speech sounds were whistles and a clearing of the throat while the parrot non-speech sounds were squawks and chirps. The recorded parrot speech sounds were those of Alex, an African Gray parrot that had the ability to talk and reason and whose behaviors were studied by psychology researcher Irene Pepperberg.

Since infants cannot verbally communicate their recognition of speech, the researchers employed a commonly used method to measure this process: looking longer at what they find either interesting or unusual. Under this method, looking longer at a visual paired with a sound may be interpreted as a reflection of recognition. In this study, sounds were paired with a series of visuals: a checkerboard-like image, adult female faces, and a cup.

The results showed that infants listened longer to human speech compared to human non-speech sounds regardless of the visual stimulus, revealing the ability recognize human speech independent of the context.

Their findings on non-human speech were more nuanced. When paired with human-face visuals or human artifacts like cups, the infants listened to parrot speech longer than they did non-speech, such that their preference for parrot speech was similar to their preference for human speech sounds. However, this did not occur in the presence of other visual stimuli. In other words, infants were able to distinguish animal speech from non-speech, but only in some contexts.

“Parrot speech is unlike human speech, so the results show infants have the ability to detect different types of speech, even if they need visual cues to assist in this process,” explained Vouloumanos.

The study’s other co-author was Hanna Gelfand, an undergraduate at NYU’s College of Arts and Science at the time of the study and currently a graduate student in the San Diego State University/University of California, San Diego Joint Doctoral Program in Language and Communicative Disorders.

 

Journal Reference:

  1. Athena Vouloumanos, Hanna M. Gelfand. Infant Perception of Atypical Speech Signals. Developmental Psychology, 2012; DOI: 10.1037/a0029055

 

New York University (2012, July 17). Infants’ recognition of speech more sophisticated than previously known. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 18, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2012/07/120717100050.htm