Baby Talk & Brain Waves

  by  |  September 26th, 2008  |  Published in All, Animals & Life Science, Brain & Psychology, Health


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Researchers studying the brains of toddlers say the strength of their brain waves can indicate language ability. The research might lead to early identification of language impairment.

[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewees: April Benasich, Center for Neurosciences at Rutgers
& Gary Marcus, NYU Child Language Center
Produced by Sunita Reed — Edited by Sunita Reed & James Eagan
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc.

Eavesdropping on the Brain

Eighteen-month-old Valentina babbles earnestly to her dad Willie Matista at the Infancy Studies Laboratory at Rutgers in Newark. Valentina is progressing normally for her age and Matista says he “gets the picture” even if he doesn’t always know exactly what she is saying. But not all kids show this kind of progress.

The Matistas have been volunteering to participate in neuroscientist April Benasich‘s studies at the Rutgers Center for the Neurosciences since Valentina was 3-months-old. Benasich is trying to tease out why some children’s language abilities are impaired and others are on track. She likes to say she’s “eavesdropping” on what is going on in the brains of children while they are in this stage of rapid development. Her most recent study found a direct relationship between one type of brain wave and a toddler’s language ability.

“We saw these really, really strong correlations to language and to cognitive outcomes and we were surprised because we thought if we saw anything it would be a subtle effect,” says Benasich. She and her team put soft sensor caps on toddlers aged 16 to 36 months that record their brain waves as they rest quietly in their parents’ laps. They analyzed these brain wave tests or electroencephalograms (EEGs), and looked specifically at a type of brain wave called a “gamma wave.” In adults, it’s thought to allow different areas of the brain to talk to each other more easily, but not much is known about gamma waves in toddlers.

Brain images show varying gamma wave power
Courtesy: April Benasich

The team also performed language ability and cognition tests on the toddlers. When they compared the gamma wave strength and the practical tests, the relationship was clear. Children with high gamma power scored higher on language expression and understanding; those with less power scored lower. In the toddlers’ brain images shown at left, high gamma power shows up red and low appears yellow.

But Benasich cautions that she hasn’t yet studied whether a child’s current performance can predict their success at age four or five. She plans to study that as well.

Practical Applications, and Cautions

Gary Marcus, head of New York University’s Center for Child Language says Benasich’s research might lead to earlier detection of language delays.

“It’s possible that, two or three or five years down the road, that you might be able to use a measure like this on younger infants who aren’t even talking yet and see whether you could say well, is my child at risk for language impairment,” says Marcus. “It’s a little too early to conclude all that for sure, but it opens up new territory.” Benasich is also studying ways to intervene early if an infant is found to be at risk for language impairment. “You may be able to avoid having language problems at all. I mean, we don’t know that but we’d love that,” says Benasich.

For now, both experts advise against parents rushing to get their kids’ brain waves tested. But they say parents should consult a pediatrician if their children show any signs of language delays. Benasich says that the best thing parents can do to help their children’s communication skills is talk, listen, and read to them.

PUBLICATION: The paper “Early Cognitive and Language Skills are Linked to Resting Frontal Gamma Power Across the First Three Years” will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Behavioural Brain Research.

RESEARCH FUNDED BY: NICHD, NSF and Elizabeth H. Solomon Center for Neurodevelopmental Research.

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    Me dan ganas de ser padre

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    Sounds very interesting. Have you heard about brainwave entrainment/synchronization? I’ve studied this and practiced it for 2 years now.
    What are your thoughts on attempting to increase an infants gamma brain wave through brainwave entrainment?
    You simply put on headphones that have 2 different frequencies going through the right and left side that produce whichever brainwave you want it to. The gamma frequency is the strongest by far and really puts your mind into the working state.

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