When it comes to communication skills, maybe we were born with it? Neuroscientists find brain matter composition during infancy is related to children’s degree of language skills at age five – ScienceDaily

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From inside the womb and as soon as they enter the world, babies absorb information from their environment and the adults around them, learning quickly after birth how to start communicating through screams, sounds, laughs and other kinds of baby talk. But are a child’s long-term language skills shaped by the way their brain develops during early childhood, and to what extent are their language development influenced by their environment and upbringing?

After following dozens of children for five years, a Boston University researcher took a closer look at the connection between how babies’ brains are structured during infancy and their ability to learn a language to one. young age, and to what extent their environment plays a role in brain and language development.

The new research, described in an article published in Cognitive developmental neuroscience, finds that organizational pathways in the brain could lay the foundation for a child’s language learning abilities in the first year of life. These pathways are known as white matter, and they act as connectors between the billions of neurons – called gray matter – that make up brain tissue. This enables the exchange of signals and all the different tasks and functions that we have to perform, as well as all the biological processes that support us.

“A useful metaphor that is often used is this: the pathways of white matter are ‘highways’ and areas of gray matter are ‘destinations’,” says Jennifer Zuk, neuroscientist and licensed speech therapist at the BU, who led the study. Zuk, a College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences: Assistant Professor of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at Sargent College, claims that the more someone does a certain task, such as learning a new language, the stronger and more refined the pathways become in the areas of the brain responsible for this task, allowing information to flow more efficiently through the white matter highways. Recent evidence suggests that white matter grows fastest during the first two years of life, according to Zuk.

In addition to the development of white matter, scientists have long known that the environment also plays an important role in shaping a person’s language skills, Zuk says. But many uncertainties remain as to whether nature or upbringing is more dominant in determining the composition of white matter, and how well a baby learns to communicate.

In their study, Zuk says, she and her colleagues sought answers to several specific questions: Early on, to what extent does predisposed brain structure play a role in development? Does the brain develop in tandem with language, and is the environment ultimately the engine of the progress of both? And how well does the structure of the brain in early childhood prepare children to be successful with language?

To investigate this, Zuk and Boston Children’s Hospital study researcher and lead author Nadine Gaab met 40 families with babies to take images of infant brains using resonance imaging. magnetic field (MRI) and collect unpublished data on white matter. development. This is no small feat, given that babies had to be sound asleep to allow precise capture of their brain activity and structure using MRI.

“It was such a fun process, and also a process that takes a lot of patience and persistence,” says Zuk, who faced the challenge of making babies 4-18 months comfortable enough to doze off during the day. ‘MRI. process – loud sounds from an MRI could be very disruptive to a sleeping baby. “There are very few researchers in the world who use this approach,” she says, “because the MRI itself involves a rather noisy background… and having infants in naturally deep sleep is very helpful in accomplishing this. this pretty crazy feat.

It is also the first time that scientists have used MRI to examine the relationship between brain structure and term language development, typically developing children from infancy to school age.

An important pathway in white matter that the researchers examined using MRI scans is called the arcuate bundle, which connects two regions of the brain responsible for making and understanding language. Using MRI, the researchers measured the organization of the white matter by examining the ease with which water diffuses through the tissues, indicating the density of the pathway.

Five years after rocking the babies to sleep and gently placing them in an MRI machine, Zuk and colleagues once again met with the children and their families to assess each child’s emerging language skills. Their assessments tested each person’s vocabulary knowledge, their ability to identify sounds in individual words, and their ability to mix individual sounds to understand the word they are composing.

According to their results, children born with higher indications of white matter organization had better language skills five years later, suggesting that communication skills may be strongly related to predisposed brain structure. But, says Zuk, this is only the first piece of a very complicated puzzle.

“Perhaps the individual differences in white matter that we observed in early childhood could be shaped by a combination of a child’s genetics and their environment,” she says. “But it’s intriguing to think about the specific factors that might lead children to a more efficient white matter organization early on.”

Although their findings indicate that a foundation for language is established in early childhood, “the continuous experience and exposure [to language] then builds on that foundation to support a child’s ultimate results, ”says Zuk.

She says this means that in the first year of a child’s life “there is a real opportunity for greater environmental exposure. [to language] and prepare children for long-term success. “

Zuk and his research partners plan to continue studying the relationship between the environmental and genetic components of language learning. Their goal is to help parents and caregivers identify early risk factors in language development in young children and determine strategies to strengthen babies’ communication skills early in life.


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