Exposure to language can shape young children’s brains


Talking to young children helps shape their developing minds, according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

Researchers captured thousands of hours of language data from infants and young children wearing small recording devices.

They also took MRI scans to study the structure of their developing brains, looking in particular at a substance called myelin.

They found that the two-and-a-half-year-olds who heard more speech in their daily environment had more myelination in areas related to language in their brains.

The team says this could potentially support more complex language processing.

Lead researcher, Professor John Spencer, from the University of East Anglia’s School of Psychology, said: “We know that children’s brains develop very rapidly in the first two years of life, with the brain size being about 80 per cent of an adult’s brain by the age of two.

Myelin is made of protein and fatty substances and forms an insulating layer around nerves in the brain. It makes brain signals more efficient.

Imagine you have a hose with lots of holes in it. Myelination is like wrapping a tube with duct tape – it insulates nerve fibers, and brings more “signal” from one brain region to another.

We wanted to learn more about how this substance is involved in early brain development, particularly whether talking to young children promotes myelin production. “

Professor John Spencer, Principal Investigator, University of East Anglia’s School of Psychology

The team studied data from 163 infants and children, who wore small recording devices for up to 16 hours per day over the course of three days.

These devices were able to record a total of 6,208 hours of language data – including speech from adults, conversational conversations and words spoken by the children themselves.

To measure brain structure, the researchers waited until the babies were asleep and then carefully placed them in an MRI scanner to measure the myelin in the brain while the baby slept.

Professor Spencer said: “What we found was that the young children who heard more speech in their everyday environment also had more myelin, which is likely to support more complex language processing.

“In other words – talking to your children is very important in early development because it helps shape the brain.”

The study is one of the first to show that language input is linked to brain structure early in development.

Professor Spencer said: “Previous work showed a similar association in children aged 4 to 6, but our findings pushed this association back much earlier in development. In fact, we found associations between language input and brain structure in infants as young as six. Months .

“At this age, it appears that language introduction may help delay myelination, possibly facilitating brain development in areas of the brain related to language.

“Although there is still a lot to learn about these processes, the message for caregivers is clear – talk to your baby, your baby, your baby. Not only are they listening, but your language inputs are literally shaping their brains.”

This research was led by the University of East Anglia in collaboration with Durham University, University of Cambridge, University of Iowa (US), Brown University (US), Leiden University Medical Center (Germany) and Concordia University (Canada).

Language exposure and myelination in early brain development Journal of Neuroscience.


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