Preterm Infants Fare Well in Early Language Development

Summary: A new study reports babies born prematurely perform as well as those who were born full term in developmental tasks of language and cognition.

Source: Northwestern University.

Preterm babies perform as well as their full-term counterparts in a developmental task linking language and cognition, a new study from Northwestern University has found.

The study, the first of its kind with preterm infants, tests the relative contributions of infants’ experience and maturational status. Northwestern researchers compared healthy preterm and full-term infants at the same maturational age, or age since conception.

The results show a robust early link between language and cognition in preterm infants, revealing that this vulnerable population begins life with a strong foundation for linking language and meaning.

“This study permits us to tease apart—for the first time ever—the roles of infants’ early experience and maturational status in establishing this critical language-cognition link,” said senior author Sandra Waxman, the Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and faculty fellow in the University’s Institute for Policy Research.

To illustrate, consider two infants conceived on the same date. If one happens to be born a month early, then although the infants will always share the same maturational age (age since conception), the preterm infant will have an opportunity to acquire an extra month of postnatal experience listening to language. But does this additional month of experience “boost” the preterm infants?

To address this, the Northwestern researchers compared preterm and full-term infants to identify the developmental timing of their link between language and object categorization, a link previously only documented in full-term infants.

In previous work with full-term infants, a Northwestern team had shown that by three months, infants successfully form object categories while listening to language and that this language-cognition link persists throughout the first year of life.

In addition, between three and four months, full-term infants exhibit an intriguing developmental shift: At three months, they look longer at the familiar object (familiarity preference), but from four months on, they look longer at the novel object (novelty preference).

The new study was designed to capitalize on this tightly timed “familiarity-to-novelty” shift in full-term infants. The new evidence revealed first, the same shift in healthy preterm infants and second, that this developmental shift unfolds on the same maturational timetable as in their full-term counterparts. This provides strong evidence about infants’ earliest links between language and cognition and how they unfold.

Image shows a dad holding a baby's hand.
In addition, between three and four months, full-term infants exhibit an intriguing developmental shift: At three months, they look longer at the familiar object (familiarity preference), but from four months on, they look longer at the novel object (novelty preference). NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrative purposes only.

Pediatric evidence reveals that although healthy preterm infants reach some developmental milestones on the same maturational timetable as their full-term peers, they nevertheless tend to encounter obstacles in language, cognitive and attentional processing capacities. This is evident in their use of early intervention services from infancy through school age.

“This study provides assurance that whatever obstacles preterm infants face in later language and cognitive development, these are unlikely to reflect difficulties in establishing the foundational link between language and core cognitive processes,” said Danielle Perszyk, the study’s first author and a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Northwestern.

[divider]About this neurology research article[/divider]

Funding: This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, including a Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award to Grill to provide long-term support to investigators with a history of exceptional talent, imagination and preeminent scientific achievement (R01-NS040894, R37-NS040894, R01-NS079312).

Source: Hilary Hurd Anyaso – Northwestern University
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Maturation constrains the effect of exposure in linking language and thought: evidence from healthy preterm infants” by Danielle R. Perszyk, Brock Ferguson and Sandra R. Waxman in Developmental Science. Published online December 29 2016 doi:10.1111/desc.12522

[divider]Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article[/divider]

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Northwestern University “Preterm Infants Fare Well in Early Language Development.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 4 January 2017.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/preterm-birth-language-5863/>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Northwestern University (2017, January 4). Preterm Infants Fare Well in Early Language Development. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved January 4, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/preterm-birth-language-5863/[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Northwestern University “Preterm Infants Fare Well in Early Language Development.” http://neurosciencenews.com/preterm-birth-language-5863/ (accessed January 4, 2017).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Abstract

Maturation constrains the effect of exposure in linking language and thought: evidence from healthy preterm infants

The power of human language rests upon its intricate links to human cognition. By 3 months of age, listening to language supports infants’ ability to form object categories, a building block of cognition. Moreover, infants display a systematic shift between 3 and 4 months – a shift from familiarity to novelty preferences – in their expression of this link between language and core cognitive processes. Here, we capitalize on this tightly-timed developmental shift in fullterm infants to assess (a) whether it also appears in preterm infants and (b) whether it reflects infants’ maturational status or the duration of their postnatal experience. Healthy late preterm infants (N = 22) participated in an object categorization task while listening to language. Their performance, coupled with that of fullterm infants, reveals that this developmental shift is evident in preterm infants and unfolds on the same maturational timetable as in their fullterm counterparts.

“Maturation constrains the effect of exposure in linking language and thought: evidence from healthy preterm infants” by Danielle R. Perszyk, Brock Ferguson and Sandra R. Waxman in Developmental Science. Published online December 29 2016 doi:10.1111/desc.12522

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