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      Babies' Brains Determine Their Level of Success in Speech Sound Development

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      Did you ever have classmates who seemed to effortlessly absorb class material and make straight A’s while you studied your butt off just to make passing grades? And you wondered, “Why does learning come so easily for them and not me?” Did they have superior brains or maybe a better upbringing?

      Brain's Pathways Pave Way For Speech Development

      To a certain extent, these same questions apply to the way young children’s long-term speech-language skills develop. The answers, however, aren't exactly black and white. In fact, in a matter of speaking, they’re more gray and white – as in gray and white brain matter.

      What researchers at Boston University have discovered is that the makeup of children’s brain matter during infancy is linked to the level of speech-language skills they achieve by the time they reach 5 years of age. To arrive at that conclusion, they examined how the structure of babies’ brains – in addition to their surrounding environment – affects their language development.

      The research, which was published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, suggests that the organizational pathways of the brain might establish a foundation for children’s language-learning skills within the first year of life. And this is where the gray and white brain matter enters the picture.

      The organizational pathways are what’s known as white matter. And it’s this white matter that serves as connectors between the billions of neurons that comprise gray matter of the brain. This combination of white and gray matter facilitates the exchange of signals that enables us to perform everyday tasks and functions – and the biological processes that sustain us.

      “A helpful metaphor often used is: White matter pathways are the ‘highways,’ and gray matter areas are the ‘destinations’,” offers Jennifer Zuk, the BU neuroscientist and licensed speech pathologist who led the study.

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      She says the more a person repeats certain tasks (like learning language), the stronger and more refined the brain’s pathways for that particular task become. Repetition also enables a more efficient flow of information through the white matter highways of your mind. This is especially important for children, says Zuk, because recent evidence suggests that white matter develops much faster during the first two years of their lives.

      Rock-a-bye, Baby, in the ... MRI Machine?

      Long before they enter the world, babies begin absorbing information from their surroundings and, eventually, from those around them, quickly learning to communicate through cries, sounds, giggles, and basic baby talk.

      From their earliest days, Zuk and her colleagues tracked dozens of children over a five-year span, seeking answers to several specific questions that might shed some light on language development, including:

      • To what extent does predisposed brain structure play a role in that development?
      • Does the brain develop in unison with language?
      • Does the environment ultimately drive the progress of both?
      • And to what extent does brain structure in early infancy set up children for success with language?

      In pursuit of answers, Zuk and Nadine Gaab, the study’s senior authors, took on a daunting first-of-its-kind challenge: They scanned the brains of 40 babies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to track their white-matter development over time. The biggest challenge? Making the 4-to-18-month-old babies comfortable enough to sleep motionless long enough for the MRI scan to capture crisp images of their brain structure and activity.

      “It was such a fun process, and also one that calls for a lot of patience and perseverance,” recalls Zuk. “There are very few researchers in the world using this approach because the MRI itself involves a rather noisy background … and having infants in a naturally deep sleep is very helpful in accomplishing this pretty crazy feat.”

      The study marked the first time that scientists used MRI to establish a relationship between brain structure and language development from infancy to school age. Researchers especially focused the MRI technology on a white-matter pathway called the arcuate fasciculus, which connects the two regions of the brain that are responsible for language production and comprehension. The MRI enabled the researchers to measure the organization of white matter by monitoring the ease with which the water diffuses through the tissue, thus indicating the pathway’s density.

      Findings: Children's Brain Matter Matters

      Five years after rocking those babies to sleep and tucking them into an MRI machine, Zuk and her colleagues reunited with the children and their families to assess the youngster’s language abilities by measuring each for the following:

      • Vocabulary knowledge
      • Ability to identify sounds within individual words
      • Ability to blend individual sounds together and to understand the word those sounds make

      Here’s what they found: Children born with greater evidence of white matter organization achieved superior language skills five years later. And although these findings suggest that children’s communication skills could be strongly linked to the predisposed brain structure, Zuk says there's much more to be considered.

      “Perhaps the individual differences in white matter we observed in infancy might be shaped by some combination of a child’s genetics and their environment,” she says. “But it is intriguing to think about what specific factors might set children up with more effective white matter organization early on.”

      Zuk says that even the study demonstrates that a foundation for language is developed from the earliest days of an infant's life, this is merely a launching pad upon which subsequent experiences and exposure to language determine children's ultimate successes with applied communication skills. 

      In other words, she says, there's a real opportunity during a child's first year of life to set them up for "success in the long term" by providing them with more environmental exposure to a language.

      In the meantime, Zuk and her colleagues will continue to probe the relationship between the environmental and genetic components of language learning in order to help parents identify the early risks in the language development of young children.

      Opportunities to Improve Include EHR Software

      schedule a demo with insync healthcare solutionsJust as the Boston University researchers identified real opportunities to set up children for long-term success with their communication skills, InSync Healthcare Solutions offers an EHR system designed for Speech-Language Pathologists. Its configuration, implementation, and assessments are tailor-made for speech therapy practices.

      For a closer look at how our software system can dramatically increase efficiencies and improve workflows in your practice, schedule a demo now with one of our experts. We're happy to answer questions and explain how we can tailor our system to meet your particular needs.

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