Brain waves and babies

September 29, 2008 9:00:00 PM PDT
Researchers studying the brains of toddlers say children's brain waves may show their ability to learn language. It's hoped, in turn, this finding can help to identify language delays in tots early in life when it's easier to address the problems.

Baby talk is perfectly normal for 18-month-olds like Valentina. She and her dad were part of the study by neuroscientist April Benasich to understand why some kids' language skills are delayed.

Benasich found a direct relationship between the strength of one type of brain wave and toddlers' language ability.

"We were surprised because we thought if we saw anything it would be a subtle effect," she said.

Benasich and her team at Rutgers used soft sensor caps to measure brain waves in toddlers aged 16 to 36 months.

They looked 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. Toddlers with high gamma power scored higher on language expression and understanding. Those with less power scored lower, but Benasich cautions that she hasn't yet studied whether a child's current performance can predict their success at age four or five.

Gary Marcus, head of NYU's Child Language Center says Benasich's research might lead to earlier detection of language delays.

"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?'" Marcus explained.

For now, both experts advise against parents rushing to get their kids' brain waves tested. However, they say any signs of language delays should be brought to the attention of a pediatrician.

Benasich says the best thing parents can do for their kids is keep talking and listening. Her paper will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal "Behavioural Brain Research."

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