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Interviewees: April Benasich, Center for Neurosciences at Rutgers
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
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
“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.Stumble | Share on Facebook | Tweet This |