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Talking to toddlers shapes early brain development – in conversation with Dr Samuel Forbes

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New research reveals that talking to babies and toddlers helps shape their developing brain and is one of the first to find a direct link to language input and brain structure early in a child’s development.

The study was led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) in collaboration with Assistant Professor Samuel Forbes from our Department of Psychology, the University of Cambridge, the University of Iowa (US), Brown University (US), Leiden University Medical Centre (Germany) and Concordia University (Canada).

Dr Samuel Forbes
Dr Samuel Forbes

The team captured thousands of hours of language data from babies and toddlers wearing small recording devices and carried out MRI scans to study the structure of their developing brains.

They found that talking to children is very important in early development as it helps to shape the brain.

Dialogue caught up with Dr Samuel Forbes about this research.

Tell us about your latest research.

We know that children absorb all the language around them, picking up on words that parents and caregivers use. It turns out that not only are they listening in and picking up words, but this language exposure is also shaping their brains. We recorded how much language children were exposed to, capturing over 6,000 hours of language data in total. What we were interested in was the effect that this exposure could have on the development of the brain.

What did you find out about child brain development?

We found that the 2½ year-olds who heard more speech in their daily life had more myelin (a material that forms around nerves) in key language-related areas of the brain than those who didn’t. Myelin is important because it is thought to help make brain signals more efficient. There’s previous research that had shown similar associations in children of primary-school age, but we now see this much earlier in development. What’s interesting is that we even find associations in 6-month-olds, but at that age the story is more complex.

What’s it like to collaborate on such a project?

Fascinating, and a lot of fun. Full credit to my amazing collaborators who really led the way on this project at UEA. It also really draws attention to how incredible the families are that volunteered for this project. They were attending MRI scans at night-time, helping us record language around the home, and generally being amazing. This kind of research is impossible without the families that volunteer!

Do you have any future plans for your research?

Many future plans! In my group here at Durham we’re really interested in infant language and cognition, and we’re starting to look at the factors in the environment that might help support language learning in infants. This recent research has highlighted how hearing language helps shape the brain, but there’s a lot more to understand about how we learn from the environment around us.

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