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J Neurosci. 2018 Sep 5;38(36):7870-7877. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0484-18.2018. Epub 2018 Aug 13.

Language Exposure Relates to Structural Neural Connectivity in Childhood.

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Division of Medical Sciences, Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts 02115,
Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139.
Boston Children's Hospital, Division of Developmental Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts 02215.
Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138.
Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, and.
Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02129.


Neuroscience research has elucidated broad relationships between socioeconomic status (SES) and young children's brain structure, but there is little mechanistic knowledge about specific environmental factors that are associated with specific variation in brain structure. One environmental factor, early language exposure, predicts children's linguistic and cognitive skills and later academic achievement, but how language exposure relates to neuroanatomy is unknown. By measuring the real-world language exposure of young children (ages 4-6 years, 27 male/13 female), we confirmed the preregistered hypothesis that greater adult-child conversational experience, independent of SES and the sheer amount of adult speech, is related to stronger, more coherent white matter connectivity in the left arcuate and superior longitudinal fasciculi on average, and specifically near their anterior termination at Broca's area in left inferior frontal cortex. Fractional anisotropy of significant tract subregions mediated the relationship between conversational turns and children's language skills and indicated a neuroanatomical mechanism underlying the SES "language gap." Post hoc whole-brain analyses revealed that language exposure was not related to any other white matter tracts, indicating the specificity of this relationship. Results suggest that the development of dorsal language tracts is environmentally influenced, specifically by early, dialogic interaction. Furthermore, these findings raise the possibility that early intervention programs aiming to ameliorate disadvantages in development due to family SES may focus on increasing children's conversational exposure to capitalize on the early neural plasticity underlying cognitive development.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Over the last decade, cognitive neuroscience has highlighted the detrimental impact of disadvantaged backgrounds on young children's brain structure. However, to intervene effectively, we must know which proximal aspects of the environmental aspects are most strongly related to neural development. The present study finds that young children's real-world language exposure, and specifically the amount of adult-child conversation, correlates with the strength of connectivity in the left hemisphere white matter pathway connecting two canonical language regions, independent of socioeconomic status and the sheer volume of adult speech. These findings suggest that early intervention programs aiming to close the achievement gap may focus on increasing children's conversational exposure to capitalize on the early neural plasticity underlying cognitive development.


LENA; child development; diffusion magnetic resonance imaging; language; socioeconomic status; turn taking

[Available on 2019-03-05]

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