Talking to babies may help shape the structure of their growing brains, according to new research.
A study by researchers at the University of East Anglia in the UK found that toddlers who hear more speech on a regular basis have more efficient neurons.
Specifically, brain scans showed that their language processing regions harbored a greater concentration of myelin – the insulating sheath that surrounds neurons and allows them to send messages faster and more efficiently.
It’s unclear whether this excess myelin actually impacts a two-and-a-half-year-old child’s language skills, but researchers suspect it could have significant benefits.
Myelin wrapped around a neuron, they say, is a bit like putting duct tape over a leaky garden hose. It helps the neuron get more of its signal from point A to point B, thereby strengthening its connection to other neurons.
“While there is still much to learn about these processes, the message to carers is clear – talk to your baby, your toddler, your child,” says John Spencer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of East Anglia.
“Not only are they listening, but your language input is literally shaping their brains.”
This message is simple, but it comes with complex results. In the study, more talk didn’t always promote greater neural efficiency in babies’ brains.
Researchers asked more than 140 toddlers and infants to wear recording devices for three days. In the thousands of hours of audio recordings collected, the researchers were able to hear what the children were hearing every day.
Then the team selected just over half of those children to undergo an MRI during nap time.
In six-month-old infants, greater daily language input was associated with less myelination – the opposite result to what was found in children two years older.
It was unexpected, but as Spencer explains, a baby’s brain development naturally goes through stages. Sometimes his brain is busy building new cells, while other times he is busy refining the cells he has already built.
During the first years of life, simple brain growth seems to take over. By the age of two, a person has already acquired a brain volume corresponding to 80% of that of an adult.
After that, the pruning and maintenance steps really begin.
“This suggests that talking matters as much at six months as it does at 30 months, but it affects the brain differently because the brain is in a different ‘state’,” Spencer wrote in a recent article for The Conversation.
At six months, for example, hearing more language may delay myelination and instead facilitate brain growth. For now, however, this is just speculation.
Saloni Krishnan, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist not involved in the study, said The Guardian that more research is needed to understand the role of myelin in learning.
“It’s not yet clear whether increased myelination in these areas is significant for future language or cognitive development, or if it’s a stable pattern throughout childhood,” he says. She.
That said, numerous studies have shown that exposure to language is important for a child’s language processing, vocabulary, grammar, and verbal reasoning. However, how these skills translate to processes in the brain remains largely unknown.
Just hours after birth, babies’ brains show signs that they are already learning the sounds of language. And ‘baby talk’ is associated with improved language skills long-term.
Additionally, previous studies have shown that four- to six-year-olds who have more conversations with adults also show greater myelination in brain regions associated with language.
The new findings extend a similar effect to even younger children.
Further research is needed to understand how these structural changes translate to language learning.
But for now, it’s wise to remember that children absorb more of what you say than you think.
The study was published in The Journal of Neuroscience.