Brain Structure Can Predict Language Learning Ability
January 23, 2013

Predicting Early Language Development In Infants

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

A new study from the University of Washington (UW) that incorporated a brain-imaging technique on the whole infant brain revealed that there are certain parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus and cerebellum, that can help predict a child's language abilities when they are one year old.

The researchers believe that their study is the first to link specific brains structures with language learning ability, and the findings are featured in the recent edition 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,” explained the study´s co-author Patricia Kuhl, who serves as co-director of the UW´s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, in a prepared statement.

The team of investigators noted that a child's language skills will generally start to progress after they turn one year old, but not much is known about the impact of infants´ early brain development in determining the progression. By figuring out which brain areas are linked to early language development, the scientists can find out which area of development is not going smoothly and they can start on treatments earlier.

“Infancy may be the most important phase of postnatal brain development in humans,” remarked the study´s lead author Dilara Deniz Can, a UW postdoctoral researcher, in the statement. “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.”

The study included magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to evaluate the brain structure of a group of 19 boys and girls who were seven months old. With voxel-based morphometry, a neuroimaging analysis technique that focuses on brain anatomy, they were able to measure the concentration of gray matter that was made up of nerve cells along with white matter that supported the network of connections in the brain. After five months, the participants returned to the lab to complete a language test. The test was able to evaluate the children´s babbling, cognition of different sounds, as well as their familiarity of names and words.

“At this age, children typically don´t say many words,” continued Deniz Can in the statement. “So we rely on babbling and the ability to comprehend language as a sign of early language mastery.”

Those infants who had greater language ability at age one also had greater concentration of gray and white matter in the cerebellum and the hippocampus. The findings were the first to find a connection between the cerebellum and hippocampus with language development. Generally, the cerebellum has been associated with motor learning and the hippocampus is thought to be 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,” commented Kuhl in the statement. “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 outcomes of the study also show how infants can learn motor planning in speech and develop needed memory requirements for distinguishing sound patterns.

“The brain uses many general skills to learn language,” concluded Kuhl in the statement. “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.”