About 5 to 10 percent of all children beginning school are estimated to have language-learning impairments, leading to reading, speaking and comprehension problems, along with a host of other challenges. Research being conducted by neuroscientist April Benasich, however, is aimed at eliminating or mitigating those problems by uncovering how to correct learning problems before babies even begin to speak.
Utilizing a range of techniques, Benasich’s goal is to determine how the infant brain develops and processes sounds so techniques can be created to correct language and learning problems when the brain is most able to change.
Director of the Infancy Studies Laboratory at Rutgers University in Newark, she and her lab were among the first to discover that how effectively a baby processes differences between rapidly occurring sounds – such as “ba” and “da” – is a firm predictor of future language and cognitive problems. As published online by Behavioral Brain Research (September 11, 2008), her research also has shown that gamma wave activity in the brains of infants provide a window into their cognitive development and could open the way for early and more effective intervention.
“Having strong bursts of gamma appears to assist the brain in making the neural connections needed for effective language development,” says Benasich. “By measuring gamma activity in the frontal cortex, which is the last brain area to mature and which is used to make decisions and solve problems, we may be able to tell how well the brain is developing in general.”
Being able to determine a child’s level of development could allow for more effective treatment at a critical point in time when the brain is laying the foundations for cognition and language, and establishing the neural connections for future learning. From 16 to 36 months, there is a dramatic explosion of linguistic and cognitive growth. It is during that period that children rush headlong into language, increasing from a vocabulary of 100 words to 1,000 words, learning that words stand for objects, and that words not only are associated with a specific object but categories.
“During this intense learning period, they are little scientists putting things together and figuring things out,” says Benasich. “Lower levels of gamma power in the resting brain may provide a ‘red flag’ indicating that a child will experience language or attentional problems. Knowing that may allow us to provide effective intervention during this critical learning period.”
Her research also has shown that children who have difficulty processing rapid auditory input are not just showing a simple maturational lag, but are actually processing incoming acoustic information differently. They appear to be using different brain areas and perhaps different analytical strategies.
“Our hope is that we will be able to gently guide the brains of infants who are at the highest risk for language learning impairments to be more efficient processors so they can avoid the difficulties that result from struggling with language,” says Benasich.
April Benasich received her Ph.D.s from New York University in Experimental and Clinical Psychology in 1987. She also holds a B.S.N. in nursing and has extensive clinical experience with high-risk infants and infant and toddler developmental/neuropsychological testing. .. While at NYU, her research focused on early infant behaviors (i.e. attention, habituation, and memory) and their relation to later cognitive and linguistic competence. In collaboration with Marc H. Bornstein (now chief of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development section on Child and Family Research, National Institutes of Health), she examined the reliability and stability of habituation of visual attention in infancy and its potential as a predictor of childhood cognitive development. Her current research focuses on the study of early neural processes necessary for normal cognitive and language development as well as the impact of disordered processing on infant neurocognitive status in high risk or neurologically impaired infants. Along with being a tenured professor of neuroscience and the director of the Infancy Studies Laboratory at the Center for Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University, Newark, she is director of the Carter Center for Neurocognitive Research, one of the Carter Centers for Brain Research in Holoprosencephaly and Related Malformations.