Little Brains, Big Ideas

The babies may be small, but the ideas are big.

April Benasich, professor of neuroscience and director of the Infancy Studies Laboratory at Rutgers–Newark’s Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, is learning how the brains of young children—even babies just 2 to 4 months old—process sounds and acquire language. Ultimately, these studies could lead to innovative techniques for recognizing potential learning problems early in a child’s development and crafting remediation tools to correct language processing difficulties even before babies start to talk.

 

A Welcoming Environment

This is brain science, but it’s not just any type of brain science. Step into the Infancy Studies Laboratory, and you’ll see brightly colored toys and video screens with playful ducks and Sesame Street characters. It’s a welcoming place, with the lab relying on volunteers—parents, that is—who bring their children to participate in long-term studies.

Groundbreaking Data

At the Infancy Studies Laboratory, researchers study the brains of children over a period of years, which allows the lab to gather groundbreaking data about how children acquire language at an age of astonishing brain development. The lab’s “prospective longitudinal studies” involve tracking the same children as their brains develop and they learn to talk. “We have a group of children who are turning 7, 8, and 9,” says Benasich, “and we have been following them since they were 6 months of age.”

By seeing them when they’re bundles of cuddly, nonverbal cuteness, and now when they’re walking and talking gymnasts and soccer players, Benasich can transform her data capturing infant brain activity into meaningful conclusions about the way early patterns of brain activity can predict the risk for later learning problems.

A mix of undergraduates, graduate students, research assistants, and postdoctoral fellows work in the lab, assisting Benasich and colleagues on research studies.

In one particularly notable finding, Benasich and her lab determined that how efficiently a baby processes differences between rapidly occurring sounds is a key predictor of future language problems.

That’s right: potential learning difficulties for school-age children—with early reading skills, say—can be predicted in babies before they are even 1 year old.

Where will these findings lead? Eventually, Benasich envisions developing techniques—or even an interactive toy—to help the brain develop more efficiently during infancy and to address language learning disorders. The idea would be to “gently guide the baby’s brain toward a more optimal strategy of attending to what’s important in the sound environment,” and that may “either prevent a child from having a learning disorder at all or ameliorate it,” she says.