Today’s Solutions: October 16, 2021

If a baby isn’t capable of taking part in complex conversations, is there any point for parents to talk to them? A new study out of Stanford University suggests there are potential brain benefits for infants who are spoken to.

In the study, scientists found engaging in “conversations” with adults may help infant brains develop, particularly in regions of the brain involved with language comprehension. To asses this, the researchers assessed the brain function of sleeping babies, aged five to eight months old, using functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) scans. The infants were also outfitted with a special, wearable device which recorded at least eight hours of all nearby, clear speech in their home environments on a typical day.

As described in the online publication Futurity, the researchers used this data to calculate the quality of conversation that the babies were engaged in. What they found was that although these infants couldn’t take part in complex conversations, they could could babble syllables—the building blocks of words—in order to respond to elicit a response from their caregivers.

“Before infants are even producing words, our findings indicate that the conversations we have with infants matter for their brain function,” said lead author Lucy King, a doctoral candidate in Stanford University’s psychology department. “There seems to be something special about these conversational dynamics between infants and caregivers, versus just the raw amount of stimulation that infants receive.”

During the brain scans, the researchers focused their analysis on functional connectivity—a measure of how activation in different areas of the brain rises and falls in synchrony—in brain regions in the infants’ temporal cortex that are linked with language comprehension. This revealed that babies who engaged in more conversations with adults in their everyday lives had less synchronized activation in a network of regions that processes language stimulation.

Although it is not clear yet whether lower connectivity is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing, the researchers speculate that lower connectivity means more efficient brain organization. The researchers also noted, interestingly enough, that this brain effect was only observed in babies that adults conversed with directly, rather than overhearing conversation between other adults.

Looking forward, the scientists are following up with participating parents and their infants at 18 months of age to examine how they are developing. In particular, they are looking at empathy, social relatedness, vocabulary, and early signs of psychopathology.

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