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HomenewsScience & TechnologyLanguage Exposure Shapes Young Brains

Language Exposure Shapes Young Brains

New research from the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK has found evidence that talking to toddlers helps to shape their developing brain.

A team from the School of Psychology at UEA led by Professor John Spencer, captured thousands of hours of language data from babies and toddlers who were equipped with small recording devices. MRI scans were also carried out to explore the structure of the participants’ developing brains, focusing on a substance called myelin.

Lead researcher Prof John Spencer explained “Myelin is made up 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 hosepipe with lots of holes in it. Myelin is like wrapping the hosepipe with duct tape – it insulates neural fibers, bringing more of the ‘signal’ from one brain area to the next.

We wanted to know more about how this substance is involved with early brain development and particularly whether talking to young children boosts myelin production.” 

Evidence showed that two-and-a-half year olds who heard more speech in their everyday environment had a higher level of myelin in language-related areas of their brains, which the team say is likely to support more sophisticated language processing.

Lead researcher Prof. Spencer added “We know that children’s brains develop very rapidly in the first two years of life, with brain volume at about 80 per cent that of an adult brain by the age of two.”

163 babies and toddlers were monitored over the course of the study, each wearing small recording devices for up to 16 hours per day across three days. The devices recorded 6,208 hours of language data in total – including extra speech from adults, conversational patterns and words spoken by the children themselves. When measuring brain structure, researchers waited until the infants were sleeping and then carefully placed them in the MRI scanner and myelin levels were monitored while the child slept. 

 “What we found is that the toddlers who heard more speech in their everyday environment, also had more myelin, which is likely to support more sophisticated language processing, Prof. Spencer said. “In other words – talking to your kids is very important in early development as it helps to shape the brain.”

Prior studies had explored the notion of brain structure and language exposure in four to six year olds, but this is the first of its kind to show that language input affects the brains of toddlers and infants. 

“Although there is still much more to learn about these processes, the message to caregivers is clear – talk to your baby, your toddler, your child. Not only are they listening, but your language input is literally shaping their brains.” Prof. Spencer concluded.’Language exposure and brain myelination in early development’ is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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