Scans of young brains by UW researchers show infants are far more aware of their surroundings than they may appear to be.

Until recently, humans could safely view their brains as fatty,spongy masses of electrifying wonder. Brains are, in a sense, a secretplace no one else can tap into unless we let them; they are our memorybanks and central control centers that dictate how we behave and reasonand interact with others.

But in the past decade, neuroscientists across the world havestarted to peer into the young brain to determine exactly how we learn.Examining their findings, researchers say that learning starts atbirth, and perhaps even earlier.

"It's too late to wait until the age of 5 and expect that teachersin schools are going to be able to catch them," University ofWashington professor Patricia Kuhl said.

Kuhl is co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Science in Seattle (ILABS).

"Children who are behind stay behind."

Currently, researchers at ILABS secure babies with nylon caps withsuction-cuplike electrodes that can read their neuronal activity. Nextyear, ILABS researchers will be the first in the world to use a $2.5million machine to test the faint magnetic fields that emanate from achild's brain.

The money for the magnetoencephalography machine came from thestate's Life Sciences Discovery Fund, which includes thetobacco-settlement bonus.

The nylon cap brain scans show that infants are far more aware oftheir surroundings than they may appear. Within days, little ones canrecognize familiar faces and sounds. Soon after, they start mimickingvowels. And at 6 months of age, babies can distinguish between thesounds of all languages (the adult brain cannot).

The MEG machine will be able to identify precisely what part of thebrain is stimulated when an infant interacts with her mother, forexample, as opposed to a stranger.

Danielle Kassow, researcher at Thrive By Five Washington, apublic-private venture that aims to increase early education across thestate, says that improved brain research has confirmed older empiricalresearch and pushed lawmakers to fund early-education programs.

In Washington, where kindergarten teachers say fewer than half oftheir students are ready on Day 1, that work began in 2006 with thelaunch of Thrive and the state's Department of Early Learning. In ClarkCounty school districts, curriculum directors have started using brainstudies to pick textbooks and help teachers hone instruction.

The role of parents

That children soak up their surroundings isn't groundbreaking. Anoft-cited study from 1995 showed that there's a gap of 32 million wordsbetween children on welfare and children from affluent homes.

Children from impoverished families are more likely to hear directives, Kuhl said, in the form of "do this" and "do that."

In educated families, she said, "Conversations are more varied —what you dream about, what you can imagine, what other people think —more complex thoughts that provide the kinds of stimulation that kids'brains need."

Acquiring a rich vocabulary isn't like cramming for the GraduateRecord Examination, however. Professor Maryanne Wolf of TuftsUniversity writes in her 2007 book, "Proust and the Squid," that wordsinform concepts that enrich a child's understanding of the world. Ifthose concepts are learned, she argues there is "less ability to inferand to predict."

Genetics lay out our neurological blueprint, but parents wire our brains, Kassow says.

Babies develop signals to get an adult's attention — they might cry,look at the adult, coo or reach out their arms. When the adultresponds, the baby is soothed by the attention, as evidenced by thereduction in cortisol levels, known as the stress hormone. Researcherswho study child attachment have argued this for years, and brain-scanresearch confirms their work.

Studying language

In 2008, ILABS studied how 9-month-olds process language spoken tothem. One group was placed in front of a television where anotherlanguage was being spoken. Another group spent time with an adult whospoke that language, and a third stayed in the native English-speakingenvironment.

The UW group found that children who learned from adults were ontrack to becoming native speakers. Brain scans of children who weresupposed to be learning from the television showed no advancement.Those infants appeared transfixed by the television but hadn't learneda thing.

"Babies need people to learn a language," Kuhl said, which may helpexplain why autistic children are linguistically delayed. Autisticchildren are less interested in interacting with their parents, andtherefore aren't getting the same language inputs as non-autisticchildren.

Read to your child

The bottom line, scientists say, is that no amount of teachertraining, brain scans or curriculum research can trump the parent-childconnection.

They say that parents should start reading to their child in utero.And when the child is born, keep reading aloud, as it introduces thebaby to the cadence of written language.

"You can read an 8-month-old racing results, stock prices orDostoyevsky," Wolf writes in "Proust and the Squid," "although anillustrated version would be even better."

Wolf says that connection between being read to and feeling loved isthe best prescription for developing a vocabulary, learning conceptsand, ultimately, learning how to read.


Source: Seattle Times, United States