TIME Developmental Disorders

The Kids Most Likely to Have ADHD In the U.S.

The latest report on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder shows higher risk by gender, race and family income

Using data collected from parent reports of the developmental disorder attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that boys, white children and kids living in poverty have the highest rates of the condition in the U.S.

The information on ADHD, collected from a representative sample of U.S. families between 2011 and 2013 as part of the National Health Interview Survey, shows that 9.5% of children ages four to 17 were diagnosed with ADHD. The diagnosis was more common among older children than in younger ones.

Twice as many boys as girls were diagnosed, and more white children than any other race were told they had ADHD.

Family income also seemed to contribute in some way; children on public insurance had the highest rates of ADHD at 11.7%, compared to those with private insurance (8.6%) and children without insurance (5.7%). More children from families with incomes less than 200% of the federal poverty line were diagnosed with the condition than those from families living at about that threshold.

While the survey only showed a snapshot of the rates of ADHD broken down by gender, race and family income, the information could help public health officials better understand who is being diagnosed with the condition and potentially find better ways of providing support to those families, both in school and at home. “In view of the economic and social costs associated with ADHD and the potential benefits of treatment, the continue surveillance of diagnosed ADHD is warranted,” the report authors from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics write.

TIME medicine

This Is a Baby’s Brain on Pain

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For the first time, scientists map newborn babies’ brains on pain, and the results are surprising

In a first, researchers at Oxford University have watched infants as young as a day old as their brains process a light prodding of their feet. The results confirm that yes, babies do indeed feel pain, and that they process it similarly to adults. Until as recently as the 1980s, researchers assumed newborns did not have fully developed pain receptors, and believed that any responses babies had to pokes or pricks were merely muscular reactions. But new research published Tuesday morning changes that.

Taking advantage of the fact that newborns less than a week old tend to sleep through anything, Rebeccah Slater, an associate professor of pediatric neuroimaging at Oxford, and her colleagues placed 10 infants who were 1-6 days old in an fMRI machine. The researchers, who reported their findings in eLife, observed which areas of the infants’ brains became more active, or consumed more oxygen, as the scientists lightly poked their feet. They did the same for adults and compared the brain images.

In adult brains, 20 regions were activated by the painful stimulus, and the newborns shared 18 of these. “The infant’s brain is much more developed than I was expecting,” says Slater. “I might have thought that some information might have gone to the sensory areas of the brain — telling the baby something was happening on the foot, for example — but I didn’t necessarily think it would go to areas more commonly involved in emotional processing such as the anterior cingular cortex, which is thought be involved in the unpleasantness associated with an experience.”

Even at birth, then, a baby’s brain possesses the foundation for quickly evaluating anything he or she experiences, including painful stimuli. “I hope this provides incentive to more researchers to find better ways of measuring pain in babies, and prioritize the importance of providing the best pain relief possible in children,” says Slater.

Slater found that newborn brains are still immature in some ways, however. Any stimulus, whether it’s a painful one or a sensory one such as a smell, tends to activate widespread regions of the brain. That signals that the baby’s brain is still trying to learn what’s what and distinguish different stimuli. The poking triggered even the newborns’ olfactory system, for example, even though the sensation had nothing to do with smell.

Second, babies tend to register all stimuli as having the same intensity. Even light pokes “feel” the same as harder ones, reflecting their still inexperienced system in distinguishing levels of activation.

But the fact that they are experiencing pain in almost the same ways as adults do is very revealing. Now that there’s evidence that the brains of babies do indeed process pain, that may change the way doctors treat newborns, especially those who are premature or need extra medical attention in the neonatal intensive care unit. In a recent study, scientists tallied an average of a dozen procedures including needle sticks that babies experienced every day; more than 60% of those infants did not receive any pain medication, either in the form of a topical numbing cream or other pain relief. Having these experiences may make these babies more sensitive to pain later in life, says Slater. A study of circumcised baby boys, for example, found that those who received pain relief felt less pain when getting vaccinations three months later than those who didn’t receive any pain medication.

“Now that we have seen for the first time what is happening in babies’ brains while they experience something mildly painful,” says Slater, “there should be a big drive to try to treat pain in these children, especially those having a high number of procedures performed in their early days.”

TIME neuroscience

Here’s a New Trick to Help Babies Learn Faster

Surprise them. Not by jumping out of a closet but by challenging her developing notions about the world, and avoiding the same-old same-old

We know that babies like new things. Present them with something they haven’t seen before and they’ll gravitate toward it, touch it, bang it around, put it in their mouths. It’s all part of the learning process so they can build a database of knowledge about the world around them.

But for babies to really learn about how the world works, it takes more than novelty. In a series of experiments with 11 month olds published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that surprising information—things that went against babies’ assumptions about concepts like gravity and the solidness of objects—forms the seed for future learning.

Aimee Stahl, a PhD candidate in the department of psychological and brain science at Johns Hopkins University, and her colleague Lisa Feigenson conducted a set of experiments with 110 infants to tease out this effect of surprise in how babies learn. The studies began with the assumption that babies are born with certain core knowledge about how the world works — that objects are solid so other things can’t pass through them, for example, or that dropping things causing things to fall rather than float.

MORE: Naps May Help Babies Retain Memories, Study Finds

First, Stahl challenged these concepts with some babies by strategically using a screen to hide a wall as they rolled ball. When they lifted the screen, some babies saw the ball stopped in front the wall, as they would expect. Other babies, however, saw the ball on the other side of the wall. When both groups were then presented with something entirely new to learn — associating a squeaking sound with a new toy — the babies who saw the contrary event (the ball on the other side of the wall) learned to link the sound to the new toy more quickly than those who saw the expected event (the ball on the correct side of the wall).

To ensure that the babies weren’t just enthralled with the novelty of the new toy, Stahl and Feigenson then repeated the experiment, except this time during the testing phase they played a different, rattling sound instead of the squeaking noise. The learning scores in the first experiment were still higher than those in the second version, strongly suggesting that the babies were actually making new connections and learning something about the objects, rather than just paying attention to the new-ness of them.

MORE: How to Improve a Baby’s Language Skills Before They Start to Talk

This was supported by the other experiments Stahl and Feigenson conducted, in which babies tried to find an explanation for the contrary results; for the balls that appeared to melt through the solid wall, they bounced and banged the balls to verify their solidity. For situations in which objects seemed to defy gravity and float, they dropped them. “It seemed like they were seeking an explanation to the kind of surprising events they witnessed,” says Stahl. “If it was just novelty that was attracting them, they wouldn’t be so specific in the way they handled the objects.”

These are the first experiments to test the idea that learning involves more than just exploring new things; Stahl’s results indicate that surprising or contradictory information helps them to confirm and test their knowledge, and try to explain events that seem to go against what they know.

“It raises exciting questions about whether surprise is something educators, parents and doctors can harness to enhance and shape learning,” says Stahl. She’s exploring, for example, how surprise can help in learning even with older children in more naturalistic environments, outside of artificial lab experiments. “Our research shows that when babies’ predictions about the world don’t match what they observe, that signals a special opportunity to update and revise their knowledge and to learn something new.”

Video: Johns Hopkins University Office of Communications; Len Turner, Dave Schmelick and Deirdre Hammer

TIME neuroscience

How Air Pollution Affects Babies in the Womb

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A new study finds evidence that prenatal exposure to common pollutants can contribute to hyperactivity, aggression and more in kids

It makes sense that an expectant mom’s exposure to pollutants in the air can affect her still-growing baby’s lungs and respiratory system. But there’s increasing evidence that such compounds can also harm brain development and contribute to behavioral and cognitive problems later in childhood.

In the latest study on the subject, published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers for the first time pinpointed exactly which areas of the brain are affected if a baby is exposed to car exhaust and the byproducts of burning home heating oil. These polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have previously been linked to developmental delays, lower verbal IQ. signs of anxiety depression and problems with attention. But researchers haven’t been able to identify which areas of the brain are most vulnerable.

MORE: Children Exposed to More Brain-Harming Chemicals Than Ever Before

In this study, they recruited 40 mothers and their children living in the inner city who were participating in an ongoing study of pollution’s effect on development. They were selected because they had low exposure to environmental factors other than PAHs that could affect development, such as tobacco smoke, lead, insecticides and other chemicals. Based on measurements of PAH in their surroundings, about half of the mothers had PAH exposures below the median of those in the larger group, and half had PAH exposures higher than the median.

“The effects were extraordinarily powerful,” says Dr. Bradley Peterson, director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and lead author of the study. “The more prenatal exposure to PAH, the bigger the white matter problems the kids had. And the bigger the white matter problems, the more severe symptoms of ADHD, aggression and slow processing they had on cognitive tasks.”

MORE: Mom’s Exposure to Air Pollution Can Increase Kids’ Behavior Problems

White matter is made up of the fibrous connections between nerve cells and is critical to helping neurons from one part of the brain communicate with their counterparts in other regions, and the babies with the highest exposure to PAH in the womb showed a dramatically lower volume of white matter in the left side of their brains. The entire left hemisphere, from the front to the back, was affected. “You would assume that an environmental exposure brought in by the blood and circulating to the brain would affect both sides of the brain,” says Peterson. “But the adverse effects of PAHs is located on one side; that’s surprising.”

The asymmetrical effect speaks volumes about how PAHs target brain tissue. Like other neurotoxins, they may preferentially seek out actively developing tissue. During gestation, the left side of the brain, which houses language capabilities, may be undergoing more intense structural changes in preparation for birth. This was supported by the fact that in the larger group of children in the study, those who were exposed to PAHs around age five didn’t show the same left-sided bias; in the older children, the pollutants affected both sides equally because the right hemisphere of the brain is undergoing active development at that time as well.

MORE: ADHD Linked to the Air Pregnant Women Breathe

Peterson suspects that the connection between PAHs and later behavioral and cognitive symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity and slow processing speed may be due to how PAHs disrupt the normal communication between nerves in the left side of the brain and elsewhere.

The problem, he admits, is that moms-to-be can’t easily change where they live or work. And most people aren’t aware of how many PAHs they absorb on a daily basis. There are ways to minimize the risk of exposure, however. Expectant mothers can avoid secondhand smoke, a major source of the compounds. Not directly inhaling exhaust from cars on busy streets or smoke from fireplaces can also help, as can spending as much time as possible in parks or other areas free of burning fuels. It won’t eliminate the risk from living in an inner city and being surrounded by car emissions, but it can help, Peterson says. “Even if you can reduce your exposure from moderately high to moderate levels, it’s going to have a beneficial effect on the developing fetus,” he says.

TIME Developmental Disorders

Parents May Be Able to Lower Kids’ Autism Risk

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With the help of videos and trained therapists, parents of at-risk kids may eventually help their toddlers to avoid an autism diagnosis

Autism experts still disagree over a lot of things about the developmental disorder, but there is one idea that unites most of them — that the earlier the condition can be diagnosed, and the sooner interventions, from medications to behavioral therapies, can be tried, the more likely that child will be to develop normally.

The latest research, published Wednesday in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, pushes this idea even further by intervening with one of the youngest group of babies yet — those who are 7 months to 10 months old. Jonathan Green from the University of Manchester, in England, and his colleagues say that teaching parents to get more in tune with the signals coming from infants who are at high risk of developing autism can change their babies’ behavior and shift them toward a pattern of more normal development.

MORE: Autism Symptoms Disappeared With Behavioral Therapy in Babies

The scientists focused on a group of 54 families with at least one autistic child. About 20% of siblings of autistic children end up developing the disorder themselves, so Green and his team randomly assigned parents of these babies to either receive a new parent-training program or to get no additional intervention at all. While previous studies have also looked at such parenting programs, most have focused on toddlers once they have been diagnosed with autism, which generally occurs around age 3.

During the training sessions, which occurred over five months, a therapist visited the home and videotaped parents interacting with their infants and then analyzed the behaviors. Rather than assuming the babies would make sounds or fidget if they wanted something, parents were asked to pay close attention to the signs their infants were providing, and find ways to recognize and respond to them so the babies would be more likely to engage and interact with their parents rather than turn away. After at least six such sessions, the infants of parents who did this showed improvements in their ability to pay attention, as well as better flexibility in shifting their attention from one object to another. Presumably the plasticity, or flexibility of the developing brain, especially in the first year of life, is making it possible to redirect some of the processes that may be veering toward autism.

MORE: How Brain Waves May Be the Clue to Diagnosing Autism

“Taken together, we think all of these improvements across different areas of measurement suggest that we improved risk markers for autism at this age,” Green said during a news conference discussing the findings. “Therefore logically we can say that we potentially lowered the risk of later autism development in these infants. At this point we think the results are promising.”

He stressed that the babies have not been tested yet for autism, which will occur when they are around 3 years old, but that the changes he and his team saw strongly suggest that the path to autism may have been interrupted, or at least suppressed in some way. “What we hope is to eventually demonstrate that by changing something critical in the environment, that we can push the organic brain-development process, the neurocognitive process, back on a typical trajectory,” says Tony Charman, a professor of psychology at King’s College London and one of the co-authors. “That’s the theoretical hope.”

MORE: Major Autism Studies Identify Dozens of Contributing Genes

The findings aren’t the first to show that intervening at such an early age with high-risk babies can potentially lower their chances of developing autism. In 2014, researchers at the University of California, Davis, tested an intensive parenting model in which parents engaged in intensive, focused play with their infants who were 6 months old, and achieved similarly encouraging results. In that study, the infants even showed brain changes that suggested their cognitive processes were normalizing to look more like those of children unaffected by autism. In Green’s study, they also saw evidence that the infants’ ability to shift attention improved after the parenting sessions to look more like those at low risk of developing autism.

MORE: Behavior Therapy Normalizes Brains of Autistic Children

Green said that the findings need to be repeated with dozens more families, but he’s encouraged by the initial success. “These parents need to have enhanced skills to deal with some of the biological vulnerability they are faced with in their children,” he said. “There are great advantages to parent-mediated interventions of this kind; once the parents are skilled up in this way, the therapy can go on 24-7 at home. It’s important to intervene throughout childhood.”

TIME Parenting

For Success at School, Personality May Beat Brains

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Intelligence isn't everything, says new study

When it comes to success in school, being smart isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Personality may have a lot more to do with academic success than just sheer intelligence, according to a new study.

Arthur Poropat, a lecturer in psychology at Australia’s Griffith University conducted the largest ever review of personality and academic performance. Porporat found that an individual’s personality traits are better indicators of academic success than a high score on an intelligence test, for students at both high school and college. Specifically, he suggests, students who are conscientious, open and emotionally stable have the best likelihood of succeeding at their studies.

“Conscientiousness reflects things like making and carrying out plans, striving to achieve, and self-control, and is linked with a factor of childhood temperament called Effort Regulation,” says Porporat. “But I found that two other personality factors were also important: Openness (also called openness to experience and intellect), encompassing being imaginative, curious, and artistic; and Emotional Stability, covering calmness and emotional adjustment (as opposed to being anxious, fearful or unstable).”

Students who had those traits were able to compete more effectively in an academic setting. “A student with the most helpful personality will score a full grade higher than an average student in this regard,” says Porporat, whose results have been published in the journal Learning and Individual Differences. “In practical terms, the amount of effort students are prepared to put in, and where that effort is focused, is at least as important as whether the students are smart.” (Interestingly, Porporat published a separate report on elementary students and found the effects are even stronger, although intelligence has a much bigger impact in primary education.)

How did he arrive at this counterintuitive conclusion? “My research was actually a series of meta-analyses, using similar procedures to those used in medical research,” says Poropat. (Meta analysis is a process of analyzing a wide swath of results of other studies, and correcting for errors).

So far he has completed two analyses: the first included nearly 140 studies and over 70,000 participants, and the most recent, which he spent the last eight years working on, looked at 22 studies with 5,514 participants and focused on links between personality traits and academic performance in secondary education.

Porporat examined five distinct personality traits (conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness, emotional stability and extraversion) and found that conscientiousness and openness have the biggest influence on academic success. His results fall in line with similar work by well-regarded educationalists such as Paul Tough, who regards “grit” as the most important quality in a student.

Could this could mean that intelligence tests are not as useful as they’ve been made out to be? “Intelligence tests have always been closely linked with education and grades and therefore relied upon to predict who would do well,” Porporat says. “The impact of personality on study is genuinely surprising for educational researchers, and for anyone who thinks they did well at school because they are ‘smart.'”

So how do educators measure and cultivate these personality traits? Well, they can’t just ask students if they have them; Porporat found that self-assessment only was only about as useful for predicting university success as intelligence tests. But when he had people who knew the students well assess their personality traits, the results were nearly four times more accurate for predicting grades.

“What I found was that when someone who knows the student well provides the personality rating, the correlation with academic performance is much stronger than if the student rates their own personality,” said Porporat. “In the case of conscientiousness, it is nearly four times as strong, but the effect for emotional stability is comparatively greater. Apparently, students don’t rate their levels of anxiousness at all accurately— not exactly surprising but the consequence is important.”

In the classroom, this could mean that teachers can assess a student’s personality and match educational activities to their dispositions. Porporat believes that understanding how personality affects academic achievement is vital to helping students reach future success.

This is good news for many parents and students. While intelligence can’t be taught, per se, conscientiousness and openness can be learned. “Personality does change, and some educators have trained aspects of students’ conscientiousness and openness, leading to greater learning capacity,” said Porporat. “By contrast, there is little evidence that intelligence can be ‘taught,’ despite the popularity of brain-training apps.”

Don’t rule the intelligence test out completely however; Porporat admits that the best students will be both bright and conscientiousness, open and emotionally stable.

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TIME Science

This Is How Music Can Change Your Brain

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Actively learning to play an instrument can help a child's academic achievement

There’s little doubt that learning to play a musical instrument is great for developing brains.

Science has shown that when children learn to play music, their brains begin to hear and process sounds that they couldn’t otherwise hear. This helps them develop “neurophysiological distinction” between certain sounds that can aid in literacy, which can translate into improved academic results for kids.

Many parents probably read the above sentence and started mentally Google-ing child music classes in their local area. But if your kid doesn’t like learning an instrument or doesn’t actively engage in the class–opting to stare at the wall or doodle in a notebook instead of participating–he or she may not be getting all the benefits of those classes anyway.

A new study from Northwestern University revealed that in order to fully reap the cognitive benefits of a music class, kids can’t just sit there and let the sound of music wash over them. They have to be actively engaged in the music and participate in the class. “Even in a group of highly motivated students, small variations in music engagement — attendance and class participation — predicted the strength of neural processing after music training,” said Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, in an email to TIME. She co-authored the study with Jane Hornickel, Dana L. Strait, Jessica Slater and Elaine Thompson of Northwestern University.

Additionally, the study showed that students who played instruments in class had more improved neural processing than the children who attended the music appreciation group. “We like to say that ‘making music matters,'” said Kraus. “Because it is only through the active generation and manipulation of sound that music can rewire the brain.”

Kraus, whose research appeared today in Frontiers in Psychology, continued: “Our results support the importance of active experience and meaningful engagement with sound to stimulate changes in the brain.” Active participation and meaningful engagement translate into children being highly involved in their musical training–these are the kids who had good attendance, who paid close attention in class, “and were the most on-task during their lesson,” said Kraus.

To find these results, Kraus’s team went straight to the source, hooking up strategically placed electrode wires on the students’ heads to capture the brain’s responses.

Kraus’s team at Northwestern has teamed up with The Harmony Project, a community music program serving low-income children in Los Angeles, after Harmony’s founder approached Kraus to provide scientific evidence behind the program’s success with students.

According to The Harmony Project’s website, since 2008, 93 percent of Harmony Project seniors have gone on to college, despite a dropout rate of 50 percent or more in their neighborhoods. It’s a pretty impressive achievement and the Northwestern team designed a study to explore those striking numbers. That research, published in September in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed direct evidence that music training has a biological effect on children’s developing nervous systems.

As a follow up, the team decided to test whether the level of engagement in that music training actually matters. Turns out, it really does. Researchers found that after two years, children who not only regularly attended music classes, but also actively participated in the class, showed larger improvements in how the brain processes speech and reading scores than their less-involved peers.

“It turns out that playing a musical instrument is important,” Kraus said, differentiating her group’s findings from the now- debunked myth that just listening to certain types of music improves intelligence, the so-called “Mozart effect.” “We don’t see these kinds of biological changes in people who are just listening to music, who are not playing an instrument,” said Kraus. “I like to give the analogy that you’re not going to become physically fit just by watching sports.” It’s important to engage with the sound in order to reap the benefits and see changes in the central nervous system.

As to how to keep children interested in playing instruments, that’s up to the parents. “I think parents should follow their intuitions with respect to keeping their children engaged,” said Kraus. “Find the kind of music they love, good teachers, an instrument they’ll like. Making music should be something that children enjoy and will want to keep doing for many years!”

With that in mind, it’s not too late to trade in those Minecraft Legos, Frozen paraphernalia, XBox games, and GoldieBlox presents that you may have purchased, and swap them out for music lessons for the kids in your life.

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TIME

An Infant’s Brain Maps Language From Birth, Study Says

Rear view of baby girl
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The infant's brain retains language that it hears at birth and recognizes it years later, even if the child no longer speaks that language.

A new study study reveals that an infant’s brain may remember a language, even if the child has no idea how to speak a word of it.

The finding comes from a new study performed by a team of researchers from McGill University’s Department of Psychology and Montreal’s Neurological Institute who are working to understand how the brain learns language.

As it turns out, the language that an infant hears starting at birth creates neural patterns that the unconscious brain retains years later, even if the child completely stops using the language. The study offers the first neural evidence that traces of so-called “lost” languages remain in the brain.

Because these lost languages commonly occur within the context of international adoptions—when a child is born where one language is spoken and then reared in another country with another language—the researchers recruited test subjects from the international adoption community in Montreal. They studied 48 girls between the ages of nine and 17 years old. One group was born and raised speaking only French. The second group was bilingual, speaking French and Chinese fluently. And the third was Chinese-speaking children who were adopted as infants and later became French speakers, but discontinued exposure to Chinese after the first few years of life. They had no conscious recollection of the Chinese language. “They were essentially monolingual French at this point,” explained Dr. Denise Klein, one of the researchers, in an interview with TIME. “But they had been exposed to the Chinese language during the first year or two of their life.”

The three groups were asked to perform a Chinese tonal task–“It’s simply differentiating a tone,” said Klein. “Everybody can do it equally.” Scans were taken of their brains while they performed the task and the researchers studied the images. The results of the study, published in the November 17 edition of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), showed that the brain activation pattern of the adopted Chinese who “lost” or completely discontinued using the language, matched the brain activation patterns for those who continued speaking Chinese since birth—and was completely different from the group of monolingual French speakers.

The researchers interpret this to believe that the neural pathways for the Chinese language could only have been acquired during the first months of life. In layman’s terms, this means that the infant brain developed Chinese language patterns at birth and never forgot them, even though the child no longer speaks or understands the language.

“We looked at language that was abruptly cut off, so we could see what happens developmentally in that early period,” said Klein. “The sound of languages are acquired relatively early in life, usually within the first year. We’ve learned through a lot of seminal work that is out there that children start out as global citizens who turn their heads equally to all sounds and only later start to edit and become experts in the languages that they’re regularly exposed to.” The question for the researchers was whether the brains of the Chinese-born children who no longer spoke their native language would react like a French speaker or like a bilingual group.

To see what neural pathways might still exist in a brain and to see what a brain might remember of the mother tongue, the researchers used Chinese language tones, which infants in China would have been exposed to before coming to live in French-speaking Montreal. “If you have never been exposed to Chinese, you would just process the tones as ‘sounds,'” said Klein. However, if someone had been previously exposed to Chinese, like the bilingual Chinese-French speakers, they would process the tone linguistically, using neural pathways in the language-processing hemisphere of their brain, not just the sound-processing ones. Even though they could have completed the task without activating the language hemisphere of their brain, their brains simply couldn’t suppress the fact that the sound was a language that they recognized. Even though they did not speak or understand the language, their brains still processed it as such.

The results were that the brain patterns of the Chinese-born children who had “lost” their native tongue looked like the brains of the bilingual group, and almost nothing like the monolingual French group. This was true, even though the children didn’t actually speak any Chinese. “These templates are maintained in the brain, even though they no longer have any knowledge of Chinese,” said Klein, who was not surprised that these elements remained in the brain.

As with most scientific research, this finding opens the door to even more questions, particularly as to whether children exposed to a language early on in life, even if they don’t use the language, will have an easier time learning that language later in life. Don’t go rushing to Baby Einstein quite yet, though. “We haven’t tested whether children who are exposed to language early, re-learn the language more easily later,” said Dr. Klein, “But it is what we predict.”

What the study does suggest though is the importance of this early phase of language exposure. “What the study points out is how quite surprisingly early this all takes place,” said Klein. “There has been a lot of debate about what the optimal period for the development of language and lots of people argued for around the ages of 4 or 5 as one period, then around age 7 as another and then around adolescence as another critical period. This really highlights the importance of the first year from a neural perspective.”

“Everything about language processing follows on the early ability to do these phonological discriminations,” said Klein. “You become better readers if you do these things.”

While Klein isn’t an expert in the field of language acquisition, she does surmise that the more languages you are exposed to the better for neural pathway development, but she hasn’t fully tested that hypothesis. She mentioned other studies that show that early exposure to multiple languages can lead to more lingual “flexibility” down the road. Before you clean out Berlitz and build a Thai-Kurdish-German-Mandarin language playlist for your infant, Klein doesn’t recommend loading kids up with “thousands of languages.” She explains: “I don’t think bombarding somebody with multiple languages necessarily improves or changes anything.” Klein thought ensuring future lingual flexibility could come from exposure to just two or three languages at an early age.

To that end, Klein does think it’s important to develop these neural templates early in life, which she considers similar to wiring a room—put in the plugs, ports and outlets first and if you need to add a light later, you won’t have to start from scratch. Luckily there are no products required to develop a language template in the brain: simply talking to your baby in your native tongue is enough to develop those all-important neural pathways. If you want to invest in Baby Berlitz, well, the studies aren’t in yet, but it can’t hurt.

TIME child development

Babies Identify Emotions by Looking at the Whites of Our Eyes

Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

Study shows the unique response of human babies to eye expressions

Babies, as anyone who has had one might have noticed, are not that good at stuff. They can’t talk to you, they suck on everything no matter what it’s supposed to be used for, they can’t run errands, they soil themselves. But they can recognize different facial expressions just from looking at someone’s eyes, apparently as early as seven months. How? It’s all to do with the whites of the eyes.

A new study out of the University of Virginia and that Max Planck Institute that was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that babies respond differently to eyes alone, if the eyes were showing different expressions. “Their brains clearly responded to social cues conveyed through the eyes,” said Tobias Grossmann, one of the study’s authors, “indicating that even without conscious awareness, human infants are able to detect subtle social cues.”

Humans, it turns out, are the only primates in which the whites of the eye are visible. The amount of sclera, as the white is known, is often an indicator of the emotions of a person. Wide open eyes, with a lot of visible white, express surprise or fear. When people smile, on the other hand, their eyes often narrow, hiding the whites. Fellow humans use the eyes a lot to detect what a person is really feeling, which is why movie villains, prison guards, and Vogue editor Anna Wintour wear mirrored or dark glasses even inside and on overcast days. If people can’t see the whites of each other’s eyes, they’re not really communicating.

The sociologists were trying to establish how consciously or unconsciously humans respond to eye expressions, whether it’s learned behavior or innate to the human condition. So they hooked the babies up to shower cap like EEG devices that measure brain activity and showed them pictures of eyes for 50 milliseconds—way too short a time for the conscious brain of a baby of that age to have any idea of what was going on. Some of the eyes were wide open showing a lot of white, some were narrowly opened, some looked straight ahead, and some had an averted gaze.

The babies’ brains responded differently to each type. “This demonstrates that, like adults, infants are sensitive to eye expressions of fear and direction of focus, and that these responses operate without conscious awareness,” Grossmann said. “The existence of such brain mechanisms in infants likely provides a vital foundation for the development of social interactive skills in humans.”

The moral of the story is: you may want to ditch the mirrored sunglasses when playing with your baby. He or she would probably just suck on them anyway.

TIME Developmental Disorders

How to Improve a Baby’s Language Skills Before They Start to Talk

Researchers say playing a series of sounds when infants are four months old could speed up the way babies process language and make them linguistic stars when they’re older. How babies respond to the sounds can also predict which infants will have trouble with language as well

The first few months of a baby’s life come with a flurry of challenges on a still-developing brain. Sights, sounds, smells and touches as well as other emotional experiences flood in, waiting to be processed and filed away as the foundation for everything from language to emotions and how to socialize with others. What happens if things are not finding their right place in the brain during these critical months? Some research suggests it results in developmental delays later on—and that’s just what neuroscientist April Benasich and her colleagues from Rutgers University found in a new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Previous studies done by both Benasich and others show that the brains of children who learn to speak later or who develop reading disorders like dyslexia showed differences in detecting small differences in speech, such as the difference between da and ba, when they were infants. Other research has come to similar conclusions.

Genetic factors certainly play a role, but up to 10% of the babies Benasich has studied had no family history of developmental problems, yet still showed language trouble when they started talking. That’s why she turned to studying the brain maps of healthy babies before they learned to speak. These routes show how infants detect and respond to sounds in their environment—from words spoken to them to the humming of a dishwasher. In these early months, their brains are primed to sort out this cacophony of auditory stimuli and start making more refined distinctions between them. Doing so requires distinguishing between tiny differences, both in the sounds themselves as well as in frequencies. “Babies do this naturally; this is their job, since they want to be able to pick sounds out quickly and figure out whether they need to pay attention to them,” says Benasich.

For the babies in this study, she adorned them with skull caps studded with electronic sensors that would draw a map of their EEGs as they were presented with different, non-linguistic tones. Some of the babies were played sounds that changed ever so slightly, such as in their tone or frequency, and whenever there was a change, a small video in the corner of a screen they were looking at popped up. The babies naturally turned to watch the video, so the scientists used these eye turns as a signal that the babies had heard and recognized the transition in sounds, and were expecting to see the video. Another group of babies were played the same sounds but without the video training, and a control group didn’t hear the sounds at all.

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It wasn’t the sounds themselves that were important, but the changes in them that were key to priming the babies’ brains. Those who were trained to pay attention to the changes in the sounds, for example, showed more robust mapping of language sounds later on when they started to babble; by 18 months, these infants showed brain mapping patterns similar to those in two year olds. They were faster at discriminating different sounds, and quicker to pay attention to even tiny differences in inflection or frequency compared to babies who weren’t given the sounds. The babies who only listened to the sounds without the training fell somewhere between these two groups when it came to their language mapping networks.

Benasich says that the training lays the foundation in babies’ brains to become more efficient in processing language sounds, including very tiny variations among them. Their brains are setting up different neural routes for each sound, like a well-organized airport with separate runways designated for northbound and southbound flights. Other babies were less adept at this, essentially routing every sound through the same neural network, akin to sending every plane off the same runway, leading to delays as some have to bank and redirect in the opposite direction. In similar ways, says Benasich, in language, this cruder processing of sounds could result in delays in reading or speaking or language acquisition, and toddlers end up having to “manually” process the sounds in a more tedious and less automatic process. “Instead of automatically discriminating sounds without pausing, they have to stop and think and what that sound might be, and that leads them to hesitate a little,” she says. “That small hesitation makes a huge difference in how well they learn and process language.”

The training, she says, was minimal – the babies’ parents brought them in for six to eight minute sessions once a week for about six weeks. Yet she was “surprised by how robust the effects are for the babies.”

The study involved healthy babies who did not have risk factors for language disorders, so the training only helped them to enhance their later language learning. But the team is currently studying a group of babies at higher risk of having language deficits, either because of genetic risk factors or by having siblings affected by such disorders. If these babies show different brain patterns compared to those not at risk, then it’s possible that EEG patterns in response to sounds could predict which infants are at risk of developing language problems even before they start to talk.

Benasich is also working on developing her test into a parent-friendly toy that parents can buy and use with their babies; if their babies are developing normally, then the training can only accelerate and enhance their language skills later on, while for those who are struggling, the training could help them to avoid learning disabilities when they start school. It’s not possible to screen every baby, but if parents and doctors are able to take advantage of such a tool, then she hopes that more language-based disorders might be avoided. “Babies naturally do this, but for those who are having trouble, we are guiding them to pay more attention to things that are important in their environment, such as language-based sounds,“ she says. “We think we could make a huge difference in the number of kids who end up with learning problems.”

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