A team of French researchers has discovered that the human brain is capable of distinguishing between different types of syllables as early as three months prior to full term birth. As they describe in their paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team found via brain scans that babies born up to three months premature are capable of some language processing.
Many studies have been conducted on full term babies to try to understand the degree of mental capabilities at birth. Results from such studies have shown that babies are able to distinguish their mother’s voice from others, for example, and can even recognize the elements of short stories. Still puzzling however, is whether some of what newborns are able to demonstrate is innate, or learned immediately after birth. To learn more, the researchers enlisted the assistance of several parents of premature babies and their offspring. Babies born as early as 28 weeks (full term is 37 weeks) had their brains scanned using bedside functional optical imaging, while sounds (soft voices) were played for them.
Three months prior to full term, the team notes, neurons in the brain are still migrating to what will be their final destination locations and initial connections between the upper brain regions are still forming—also neural linkages between the ears and brain are still being created. All of this indicates a brain that is still very much in flux and in the process of becoming the phenomenally complicated mass that humans are known for, which would seem to suggest that very limited if any communication skills would have developed.
The researchers found, however, that even at a time when the brain hasn’t fully developed, the premature infants were able to tell the difference between female versus male voices, and to distinguish between the syllables “ba” and “ga”. They noted also that the same parts of the brain were used by the infants to process sounds as adults. This, the researchers conclude, shows that linguistic connections in the brain develop before birth and because of that do not need to be acquired afterwards, suggesting that at least some abilities are innate.