The University of Washington study, published in the journal Brain and Language, is the first to associate brain structures -- specifically the hippocampus and cerebellum -- with future language skills, a university release reported Tuesday.
"The brain of the baby holds an infinite number of secrets just waiting to be uncovered, and these discoveries will show us why infants learn languages like sponges, far surpassing our skills as adults," said study co-author Patricia Kuhl of the university's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.
The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brain structure of infants at 7 months of age -- to determine the concentration of gray matter, consisting of nerve cells, and of white matter, which makes up the network of connections throughout the brain.
When the children reached 1 year of age, they were given a language test to measure babbling, recognition of familiar names and words, and their ability to produce different types of sounds.
"At this age, children typically don't say many words," lead study author Dilara Deniz Can said. "So we rely on babbling and the ability to comprehend language as a sign of early language mastery."
Infants with a greater concentration of gray and white matter in the cerebellum and the hippocampus showed greater language ability at age 1, the researchers found.
"The brain uses many general skills to learn language," Kuhl said. "Knowing which brain regions are linked to this early learning could help identify children with developmental disabilities and provide them with early interventions that will steer them back toward a typical developmental path."
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