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Infants Begin Learning Language as Early as 10 Months, Researchers at Temple, Delaware and Evansville Find

Infants are listening and learning their first words as young as 10 months, but they are only learning the words for objects that are of interest to them, not for objects of interest to the speaker, according to researchers at Temple University, University of Delaware and University of Evansville.

Their findings are reported in a new study, “The birth of words: Ten-month-olds learn words through perceptual salience,” being published in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development (Vol. 77, Issue 2).

In their study, the researchers showed infants two separate objects–one “interesting” and one “boring” in order to teach infants new words. The researchers examined whether 10-month-olds are guided by how much they like an object (i.e., perceptual cues) as well as which object the speaker with them is naming (i.e., social cues) to learn a new word.

At 10 months, before they say much of anything, the researchers discovered that the infants were truly capable of learning two new words in a single session. Using a measure of word comprehension (rather than expecting babies to say the word), they found that infants paired a new word to the object they liked best, regardless of which object the speaker named.

“We found that you could look at one of the objects, pick that object up and even move it, but the baby naturally assumes that the word you’re speaking goes with the object that they think is interesting, not the object that you show an interest in,” says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the Lefkowitz Professor of Psychology and director of the Temple University Infant Lab, and one of the study’s co-investigators.

“Ten-month-olds simply ‘glue’ a label onto the most interesting object they see,” adds Shannon Pruden, a doctoral student in psychology at Temple and the study’s lead author. “Perhaps this is why children learn words faster when parents look at and name the objects that infants already find interesting.”

According to the researchers, these results have huge implications for parents and caregivers. They suggest that babies are listening into our conversations and trying to learn words well before they can say them. The findings also suggest that when we speak to our infants, we should talk about things that they like, not what we like.

As parents and caregivers, we must be sensitive and responsive to infants’ interests as they don’t have the flexibility to adopt our interests, says Hirsh-Pasek.

“Little babies are learning words fast, even at 10 months when they aren’t saying much at all and that’s huge,” says co-investigator Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, the H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Education at Delaware. “So, parents should talk to their babies from early on because that’s the only way that infants can learn language. They should also talk about what the baby is interested in.”

The researchers added that around 18 months of age, a child’s focus changes and they begin to learn words differently, using the speaker’s interest as a guide.

“The 18-month-old is a social sophisticate who can tap into the speaker’s mind and the vast mental dictionary that the adult has to offer,” says Hirsh-Pasek. “At 10 months they just cannot take the speaker’s perspective into consideration.”

The study, which was funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, was done in collaboration between Hirsh-Pasek, Pruden, Golinkoff, along with Elizabeth Hennon, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Evansville.

Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff are co-authors of six books, including Einstein never used flashcards: How our children REALLY learn and why they need to play more and memorize less (2003) and How babies talk: The magic and mystery of language acquisition (1999).

Scans Show Different Growth for Intelligent Brains

The brains of highly intelligent children develop in a different pattern from those with more average abilities, researchers have found after analyzing a series of imaging scans collected over 17 years.

The discovery, some experts expect, will help scientists understand intelligence in terms of the genes that foster it and the childhood experiences that can promote it.

“This is the first time that anyone has shown that the brain grows differently in extremely intelligent children,” said Paul M. Thompson, a brain-imaging expert at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The finding is based on 307 children in Bethesda, Md., an affluent suburb of Washington. Starting in 1989, they were given regular brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging, a project initiated by Dr. Judith Rapoport of the National Institute of Mental Health.

This set of scans has been analyzed by Philip Shaw, Dr. Jay Giedd and others at the institute and at McGill University in Montreal. They looked at changes in the thickness of the cerebral cortex, the thin sheet of neurons that clads the outer surface of the brain and is the seat of many higher mental processes.

The general pattern of maturation, they report in Nature today, is that the cortex grows thicker as the child ages and then thins out. The cause of the changes is unknown, because the imaging process cannot see down to the level of individual neurons.

But basically the brain seems to be rewiring itself as it matures, with the thinning of the cortex reflecting a pruning of redundant connections.

The analysis was started to check out a finding by Dr. Thompson: that parts of the frontal lobe of the cortex are larger in people with high I.Q.’s. Looking at highly intelligent 7-year-olds, the researchers said they were surprised to find that the cortex was thinner than in a comparison group of children of average intelligence.

It was only in following the scans as the children grew older that the dynamism of the developing brain became evident. The researchers found that average children (I.Q. scores 83 to 108) reached a peak of cortical thickness at age 7 or 8. Highly intelligent children (121 to 149 in I.Q.) reached a peak thickness much later, at 13, followed by a more dynamic pruning process.

One interpretation, Dr. Rapoport said, is that the brains of highly intelligent children are more plastic or changeable, swinging through a higher trajectory of cortical thickening and thinning than occurs in average children. The scans show the “sculpturing or fine tuning of parts of the cortex which support higher level thought, and maybe this is happening more efficiently in the most intelligent children,” Dr. Shaw said.

The I.Q. was tested when the children entered the program. Further tests were not needed because I.Q.’s are so stable, Dr. Rapoport said.

Dr. Thompson said the new study opened huge possibilities because researchers should be able to identify the factors that influence the brain by looking at the scan patterns identified by the researchers.

The Bethesda children have had genetic samples taken from their cells, so genes that have even the mildest influence on the brain should be detectable, Dr. Thompson said. The pattern of development may also be affected by factors like diet, hours spent in school or the number of siblings, and these may come to light by asking parents how they raised their children.

“There are many enigmas of intelligence that they can now solve,” he said.

I.Q. scores and measuring intelligence have long been controversial. Brain-imaging studies by Dr. Thompson and the study group have advanced the field by identifying physical features of the brain that correlate with I.Q.

In 2001, Dr. Thompson reported that based on imaging twins’ brains the volume of gray matter in the frontal lobes and other areas correlated with I.Q. and was heavily influenced by genetics. Despite the great importance of genes in brain function, Dr. Thompson said experience could also change the brain.

“Unless you have strong natural potential, you won’t become a world-class marathon runner,” he said. “But that disillusionment is rapidly replaced by the notion that you can improve your own performance.”

The institute’s team has many genetic studies in progress. The analysis reported today was not intended to look at the relationship between genes and intelligence.

“A lot of research in intelligence has not been that great,” Dr. Shaw said. “I would hope by this modest descriptive study to put things on an empirical footing.”

One goal of the study was to establish normal development patterns, to diagnose what goes awry in children with schizophrenia or attention deficits. Dr. Shaw said his team did not have the full answers as to how the brain differed in those cases.

Copyright 2006 New York Times. All rights reserved.

Study: Autism Rise From Labeling, Not Epidemic

CHICAGO, Illinois (Reuters) — A rise in autism cases is not evidence of a feared epidemic but reflects that schools are diagnosing autism more frequently, a study said Monday.

Children classified by school special education programs as mentally retarded or learning disabled have declined in tandem with the rise in autism cases between 1994 and 2003, the author of the study said, suggesting a switch of diagnoses.

Government health authorities have been trying to allay widely publicized concerns that vaccines containing the mercury-containing preservative therimerosal, which is no longer used, were behind an autism epidemic.

There may be as yet unknown environmental triggers behind autism, study author Paul Shattuck of the University of Wisconsin at Madison said, but his research suggested the past decade’s rise in autism cases was more of a labeling issue.

Autism was fully recognized in 1994 by all states as a behavioral classification for schoolchildren, who receive individualized attention whatever their diagnosis, he wrote in the journal Pediatrics.

Subsequent increases in the number of autism cases have varied widely by state but the average prevalence among 6- to 11-year-olds enrolled in special education programs increased from 0.6 per 1,000 pupils in 1994 to 3.1 per 1,000 in 2003.

During the same period, diagnoses of mental retardation fell by 2.8 per 1,000 students and diagnoses of learning disabilities dropped by 8.3 per 1,000 students.

Autism is a spectrum of disorders caused by abnormal brain development that can lead to diminished social skills, as well as unusual ways of learning and reactions to sensations. As many as 6 in 1,000 children are ultimately diagnosed with it to some degree, according to the Autism Society of America.

Shattuck’s analysis was challenged in an accompanying commentary by autism researcher Craig Newschaffer of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

“We do not know whether individual children have switched classifications, and of course we can never know whether a given child in a particular birth cohort would have been classified differently had they been born either earlier or later. At best, analyses of this type are merely trying to determine if trends in one classification have the potential to offset those in another,” he wrote.

There was a clear need for definitive studies into the roles played by genetic susceptibility and environmental triggers in autism, Newschaffer wrote.

Copyright 2006 Reuters. All rights reserved.

Autistic Disorder

Autistic disorder is a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to communicate, form relationships with others, and respond appropriately to the environment. Some people with autistic disorder are high functioning, with speech and intelligence intact. Others may be nonverbal and/or mentally retarded.

Asperger Disorder

Asperger disorder, sometimes referred to as Asperger syndrome, is a neurobiological disorder. In contrast to autistic disorder, individuals with Asperger disorder do not have a delay in spoken language development. However, they can have serious deficits in social and communication skills. They often have obsessive, repetitive routines and preoccupations with a particular subject matter.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD/NOS)

PDD/NOS is a diagnosis often considered for children who show some signs of autistic disorder, but who do not meet the specific diagnostic criteria for the other PDDs.

Rett Disorder

Rett disorder is a complex neurological disorder that affects mainly girls, but there are reports of males who this disorder. Rett disorder is genetic in origin, and is among the most common genetic cause of profound intellectual and physical disability in girls, occurring more commonly than 1 in 10,000 female births. Individuals with Rett disorder develop normally until 6 to 18 months of age followed by a developmental regression. This regression is followed by a deceleration of head growth, loss of purposeful hand movements and followed by the appearance of midline, stereotypic hand movements. A gene for Rett disorder was identified in 1999.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

Children with childhood Disintegrative disorder develop normally for a relatively prolonged period (usually 2 to 4 years) before developing a condition that resembles autistic disorder. Typically language, interest in the social environment, and often toileting and self-care abilities are lost, and there may be a general loss of interest in the environment.