Parents who converse with their toddlers are typically looking to bond or teach language skills, but a new study suggests there are even bigger benefits. Regular conversation—direct or indirect—may ultimately shape the child’s brain.
Published on May 15th in the Journal of Neuroscience, the study analyzed 163 babies and toddlers between the ages of 6 and 30 months. Each child wore a small recording device for up to 16 hours a day, for three days, to determine the amount of adult conversation they heard. This included reading, direct conversation, and conversation that occurred around the child (indirect). Researchers then performed MRI scans to quantify the amount of myelin in specific language-related parts of the child’s brain.
Myelin is a protective layer of protein and fat that wraps around nerve fibers in the brain, which helps speed electrical signals.
“Myelination of the brain is really important, as it makes communication between brain cells more efficient. This, in turn, can help speed up thinking,” said senior researcher John Spencer, a professor of psychology at the University of East Anglia in England.
Findings indicated that myelin accumulated more rapidly in the brains of toddlers who heard more words each day. The same results were not seen in infants. The reason for this is unclear. Spencer says it may be due to the prioritization of the brain; at younger ages, the brain may be primarily focused on growing more cells. Myelination tends to “ramp up” as the rate of cell growth starts to slow down.
Researchers cannot definitively say if the increased myelin production will actually produce stronger language skills, but the team intends to follow this group of children as they grow, so a correlation may be found later on. For now, Spencer says, “Talk, talk, talk to your children.”
This can include “serve-and-return,” speaking, “broadcasting” while making dinner or performing daily activities, reading, or even simply conversing with others while the child is within hearing range. Smart devices were not addressed in the study, and researchers say these should not be considered a substitute for human interaction.
“Nothing can replace the human interaction,” said Anand Patel, a child psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, who was not involved in the study. ”Given that we’re in this electronic age,” Patel said, “I think a study like this emphasizes the importance of parent-child interactions — not only for their emotional and mental well-being but for their brain development as well.”
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