Scientists highlight brain differences in infants with auditory processing problems

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Washington, April 11 : Rutgers University researchers have found in a study of infant brains that babies who struggle to process tiny auditory differences like "ba" and "da" sounds seem to be using different brain areas, and perhaps different analysis strategies to accomplish the task, as compared to children who do not have such difficulties.

The researchers have also found less left hemisphere activity in the brains of children who struggle with rapid auditory processing as compared to matched control children.

April Benasich, a professor of Neuroscience who led the study at her Infancy Studies Laboratory in Newark, says that the finding provides new and exciting clues about how infant brains begin to acquire language.

She believes that the ability to pinpoint the exact differences in how the brain handles incoming acoustic information may be fundamental to guiding the brains of babies at risk to work more efficiently before they even begin to speak.

"We can predict with about 90 per cent accuracy what a baby's language capabilities will be just by their response to tones," says Benasich.

"Our hope now is that we will be able to gently guide the brains of infants who are at the highest risk for language learning impairments to be more efficient processors so they can avoid the difficulties that result from struggling with language," she adds.

She has revealed that methods developed by her lab can help detect as early as three to six months whether a baby will struggle with language development.

To shed additional light on how inefficiencies in rapid auditory processing might be corrected, Benasich's team has developed a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) protocol for scanning naturally sleeping healthy babies, which will allow better localization of active brain areas.

For children who are unable to lie still for extended periods in a scanner, the researchers conduct the scans when they are asleep.

Headphones providing a steady stream of lullabies and an acoustic foam bonnet are placed on the baby's head to reduce the sound of the MRI.

"Our goal is not only to develop training techniques to correct rapid auditory processing problems, but to identify the period during infant development when the brain is most "plastic", or most able to change through learning," Benasich says.

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