Young children talking back and forth with adults strengthens language regions of brain

Dialogue with adults may lead to stronger pathways between two brain regions.

August 13, 2018, 3:43 PM

Adults who hold back-and-forth conversations with young children rather than just talking to them may be helping to strengthen connections between the language regions of the children’s brains, new research shows.

The new study published today in The Journal of Neuroscience found that dialogue with adults may lead to stronger pathways between two brain regions critical for language development in young children.

“Our findings show that the information highways between the language regions of the brain were stronger in children who took turns talking with their parents, and the greater connectivity held true independent of socioeconomic status,” said Dr. Rachel Romeo, postdoctoral research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital and lead author of the study, in an interview with ABC news.

The study by a team from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania was based on results from a relatively small group, 40 children ages 4 to 6.

The researchers recorded the children and their parents for two days to capture the number of different words children heard, the number of words they spoke, and the number of turns they took in back-and-forth conversations with their caregivers. The team then used an MRI to take images of the children’s brains, and performed common office tests to measure the children’s verbal and cognitive abilities.

PHOTO: In this undated stock photo, a father has a conversation with his son.
In this undated stock photo, a father has a conversation with his son.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Children who took more turns in back-and-forth conversation with their parents had stronger connections between the brain regions responsible for comprehension and production of speech, and also scored higher on verbal skills tests, the study found.

It is well known that the quantity and quality of that language that children hear early in life predicts their future verbal and cognitive skills.

In a study in the 1990s, researchers found that by the time children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds reach school age they are exposed to on average 30 million more words than children growing up in lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The findings became known in the medical community as the “word gap.”

Since then, much of the focus of early childhood language development has been on getting children to hear a greater number of words. Romeo believes the word gap is an overly simplistic approach to language development, and her team’s work is part of a movement to think more about the quality of speech children are exposed to as opposed to just quantity.

While other research has linked children's verbal skills to the complexity of conversations they have when young with adults, this is the first study to suggest which specific structural changes in the brain might be responsible for this association. As this is a small study, the connection will need to be proven in broader work.

“This was an early-stage study to determine whether these relationships [between conversational speech and structure of the brain] exist and now that we know they do, we will move to an intervention study where we will bring children and parents in and target those brain regions,” Romeo said.

If the study is confirmed, it’s an inexpensive intervention that any caregiver can do.

“When you engage children in conversation, you can target language for their appropriate level of development … They’re getting that optimal feedback,” Romeo said.

Edith Bracho-Sanchez, M.D., is a pediatrician and consultant for ABC News, and Richa Kalra, M.D., is a resident physician specializing in psychiatry working in the ABC News Medical Unit.