Chapter 19. Language and Hemispheric Asymmetry
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By Elizabeth Pennisi "What's for dinner?" The words roll off the tongue without even thinking about it—for adults, at least. But how do humans learn to speak as children? Now, a new study in mice shows how a gene, called FOXP2, implicated in a language disorder may have changed between humans and chimps to make learning to speak possible—or at least a little easier. As a uniquely human trait, language has long baffled evolutionary biologists. Not until FOXP2 was linked to a genetic disorder that caused problems in forming words could they even begin to study language’s roots in our genes. Soon after that discovery, a team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, discovered that just two bases, the letters that make up DNA, distinguished the human and chimp versions of FOXP2. To try to determine how those changes influenced the gene's function, that group put the human version of the gene in mice. In 2009, they observed that these "humanized" mice produced more frequent and complex alarm calls, suggesting the human mutations may have been involved in the evolution of more complex speech. Another study showed that humanized mice have different activity in the part of the brain called the striatum, which is involved in learning, among other tasks. But the details of how the human FOXP2 mutations might affect real-world learning remained murky. To solve the mystery, the Max Planck researchers sent graduate student Christiane Schreiweis to work with Ann Graybiel, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. She's an expert in testing mouse smarts by seeing how quickly they can learn to find rewards in mazes. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
By KEN BELSON The National Football League, which for years disputed evidence that its players had a high rate of severe brain damage, has stated in federal court documents that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that the conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population. The findings are a result of data prepared by actuaries hired by the league and provided to the United States District Court judge presiding over the settlement between the N.F.L. and 5,000 former players who sued the league, alleging that it had hidden the dangers of concussions from them. “Thus, our assumptions result in prevalence rates by age group that are materially higher than those expected in the general population,” said the report, prepared by the Segal Group for the N.F.L. “Furthermore, the model forecasts that players will develop these diagnoses at notably younger ages than the generation population.” The statements are the league’s most unvarnished admission yet that the sport’s professional participants sustain severe brain injuries at far higher rates than the general population. They also appear to confirm what scientists have said for years: that playing football increases the risk of developing neurological conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that can be identified only in an autopsy. “This statement clears up all the confusion and doubt manufactured over the years questioning the link between brain trauma and long-term neurological impairment,” said Chris Nowinski, the executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute, who has for many years pressured the league to acknowledge the connection between football and brain diseases. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion
Link ID: 20073 - Posted: 09.13.2014
By Lesley Evans Ogden Humans are noisy creatures, our cacophony of jet engines and jackhammering drowning out the communications of other species. In response, a number of animals, including marmosets and whales, turn up their own volume to be heard above the din, a phenomenon called the Lombard effect. A new study reveals that even fish “shout.” Researchers took a close look at the blacktail shiner (Cyprinella venusta), which is common to freshwater streams of the southeastern United States and whose short-distance acoustic signals are often exposed to boat and road noise. Only male shiners make sounds; popping sounds called knocks are used aggressively toward other males, while staticky-sounding “growls” are used for courtship, both heard in the above video. When the scientists brought the fish back to the lab and cranked up white noise from an underwater amplifier, they found that shiner males emitted fewer, shorter pulses, and cranked up the volume of their acoustic signals to be heard above background noise. Published in Behavioral Ecology, it’s the first study documenting the Lombard effect in fish, suggesting that freshwater fish are another group potentially impacted by our ever-increasing hubbub. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
By Virginia Morell A dog’s bark may sound like nothing but noise, but it encodes important information. In 2005, scientists showed that people can tell whether a dog is lonely, happy, or aggressive just by listening to his bark. Now, the same group has shown that dogs themselves distinguish between the barks of pooches they’re familiar with and the barks of strangers and respond differently to each. The team tested pet dogs’ reactions to barks by playing back recorded barks of a familiar and unfamiliar dog. The recordings were made in two different settings: when the pooch was alone, and when he was barking at a stranger at his home’s fence. When the test dogs heard a strange dog barking, they stayed closer to and for a longer period of time at their home’s gate than when they heard the bark of a familiar dog. But when they heard an unknown and lonely dog barking, they stayed close to their house and away from the gate, the team reports this month in Applied Animal Behaviour Science. They also moved closer toward their house when they heard a familiar dog’s barks, and they barked more often in response to a strange dog barking. Dogs, the scientists conclude from this first study of pet dogs barking in their natural environment (their owners’ homes), do indeed pay attention to and glean detailed information from their fellows’ barks. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Erin Allday When a person suddenly loses the ability to speak or to understand what others are saying, the hardships that cascade from that loss can be overwhelming - from the seemingly trite to the devastatingly depressing. What hit Derrick Wong, 49, hardest was losing the ability to tell a joke. Ralph Soriano, 56, hates taking his car to the mechanic, knowing he will barely understand what's being said. "Girls," said Luke Waterman, 30, with a sigh. Flirting used to come easy. All three men - actually a pretty happy, hopeful gang for the most part - are longtime members of a group therapy program at the Aphasia Center of California, an Oakland nonprofit that offers treatment and ongoing education to people who have suffered communication disorders as a result of stroke or other brain injury. The nonprofit specializes in long-term therapy, an area of aphasia treatment that has taken off in the past few years. For many decades, doctors and speech pathologists assumed that patients had a window of six months to a year to recover language skills lost to a brain injury. Now, anecdotal reports and clinical research suggest that the window is much wider, and may even stay open a lifetime. "There is evidence that people can improve and regain skills, even years after a stroke," said Blair Menn, a speech language pathologist at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Redwood City. © 2014 Hearst Communications, Inc.
By NICHOLAS BAKALAR Childhood treatment with human growth hormone is strongly associated with an increased risk for stroke in early adulthood, a new study has found. The study adds evidence to previous reports suggesting an increased cardiac and cerebrovascular risk in children treated with growth hormone. Researchers studied 6,874 children, average age 11, who were small for their age but otherwise generally healthy and were treated with growth hormone from 1985 to 1996. They followed them to an average age of 28. There were 11 strokes in the group, four of them fatal. The analysis found that this was more than twice as many strokes as would be expected in a population this size, a statistically significant difference. The results, published online in the journal Neurology, were particularly striking for hemorrhagic stroke, the type caused by a ruptured blood vessel — there were more than seven times as many as would be expected. The authors acknowledged that they were unable to take into account some risk factors for stroke, such as family history and smoking. “Subjects on growth hormones should not panic on reading these results,” said the senior author, Dr. Joël Coste, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the Hôtel Dieu hospital in Paris. “The doctor prescribing the hormone or the family doctor should be consulted and will be able to inform and advise patients.” © 2014 The New York Times Company
By Meeri Kim From ultrasonic bat chirps to eerie whale songs, the animal kingdom is a noisy place. While some sounds might have meaning — typically something like “I'm a male, aren't I great?” — no other creatures have a true language except for us. Or do they? A new study on animal calls has found that the patterns of barks, whistles, and clicks from seven different species appear to be more complex than previously thought. The researchers used mathematical tests to see how well the sequences of sounds fit to models ranging in complexity. In fact, five species including the killer whale and free-tailed bat had communication behaviors that were definitively more language-like than random. The study was published online Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. “We're still a very, very long way from understanding this transition from animal communication to human language, and it's a huge mystery at the moment,” said study author and zoologist Arik Kershenbaum, who did the work at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis. “These types of mathematical analyses can give us some clues.” While the most complicated mathematical models come closer to our own speech patterns, the simple models — called Markov processes — are more random and have been historically thought to fit animal calls. “A Markov process is where you have a sequence of numbers or letters or notes, and the probability of any particular note depends only on the few notes that have come before,” said Kershenbaum. So the next note could depend on the last two or 10 notes before it, but there is a defined window of history that can be used to predict what happens next. “What makes human language special is that there's no finite limit as to what comes next,” he said.
By Jane C. Hu Last week, people around the world mourned the death of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams. According to the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California, we were not the only primates mourning. A press release from the foundation announced that Koko the gorilla—the main subject of its research on ape language ability, capable in sign language and a celebrity in her own right—“was quiet and looked very thoughtful” when she heard about Williams’ death, and later became “somber” as the news sank in. Williams, described in the press release as one of Koko’s “closest friends,” spent an afternoon with the gorilla in 2001. The foundation released a video showing the two laughing and tickling one another. At one point, Koko lifts up Williams’ shirt to touch his bare chest. In another scene, Koko steals Williams’ glasses and wears them around her trailer. These clips resonated with people. In the days after Williams’ death, the video amassed more than 3 million views. Many viewers were charmed and touched to learn that a gorilla forged a bond with a celebrity in just an afternoon and, 13 years later, not only remembered him and understood the finality of his death, but grieved. The foundation hailed the relationship as a triumph over “interspecies boundaries,” and the story was covered in outlets from BuzzFeed to the New York Post to Slate. The story is a prime example of selective interpretation, a critique that has plagued ape language research since its first experiments. Was Koko really mourning Robin Williams? How much are we projecting ourselves onto her and what are we reading into her behaviors? Animals perceive the emotions of the humans around them, and the anecdotes in the release could easily be evidence that Koko was responding to the sadness she sensed in her human caregivers. © 2014 The Slate Group LLC.
By James Gallagher Health editor, BBC News website Stimulating the part of the brain which controls movement may improve recovery after a stroke, research suggests. Studies showed firing beams of light into the brains of mice led to the animals moving further and faster than those without the therapy. The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, could help explain how the brain recovers and lead to new treatments. The Stroke Association said the findings were interesting. Strokes can affect memory, movement and the ability to communicate. Brain cells die when their supply of oxygen and sugars is cut off by a blood clot. Stroke care is focused on rapid treatment to minimise the damage, but some recovery is possible in the following months as the brain rewires itself. The team at Stanford University School of Medicine investigated whether brain stimulation aided recovery in animal experiments. They used a technique called optogenetics to stimulate just the neurons in the motor cortex - the part of the brain responsible for voluntary movements - following a stroke. After seven days of stimulation, mice were able to walk further down a rotating rod than mice which had not had brain stimulation. After 10 days they were also moving faster. The researchers believe the stimulation is affecting how the wiring of the brain changes after a stroke. They detected higher levels of chemicals linked to the formation of new connections between brain cells. Lead researcher Prof Gary Steinberg said it was a struggle to give people drugs to protect brain cells in time as the "time window is very short". BBC © 2014
Link ID: 19979 - Posted: 08.20.2014
|By Matthew H. Schneps “There are three types of mathematicians, those who can count and those who can’t.” Bad joke? You bet. But what makes this amusing is that the joke is triggered by our perception of a paradox, a breakdown in mathematical logic that activates regions of the brain located in the right prefrontal cortex. These regions are sensitive to the perception of causality and alert us to situations that are suspect or fishy — possible sources of danger where a situation just doesn’t seem to add up. Many of the famous etchings by the artist M.C. Escher activate a similar response because they depict scenes that violate causality. His famous “Waterfall” shows a water wheel powered by water pouring down from a wooden flume. The water turns the wheel, and is redirected uphill back to the mouth of the flume, where it can once again pour over the wheel, in an endless cycle. The drawing shows us a situation that violates pretty much every law of physics on the books, and our brain perceives this logical oddity as amusing — a visual joke. The trick that makes Escher’s drawings intriguing is a geometric construction psychologists refer to as an “impossible figure,” a line-form suggesting a three-dimensional object that could never exist in our experience. Psychologists, including a team led by Catya von Károlyi of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, have used such figures to study human cognition. When the team asked people to pick out impossible figures from similarly drawn illustrations that did not violate causality, they were surprised to discover that some people were faster at this than others. And most surprising of all, among those who were the fastest were those with dyslexia. © 2014 Scientific American
By Victoria Gill Science reporter, BBC News Scientists in Brazil have managed to eavesdrop on underwater "turtle talk". Their recordings have revealed that, in the nesting season, river turtles appear to exchange information vocally - communicating with each other using at least six different sounds. This included chatter recorded between females and hatchlings. The researchers say this is the first record of parental care in turtles. It shows they could be vulnerable to the effects of noise pollution, they warn. The results, published recently in the Journal Herpetologica, include recordings of the strange turtle talk. They reveal that the animals may lead much more socially complex lives than previously thought. The team, including researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the National Institute of Amazonian Research carried out their study on the Rio Trombetas in the Amazon between 2009 and 2011. They used microphones and underwater hydrophones to record more than 250 individual sounds from the animals. The scientists then analysed these vocalisations and divided them into six different types, correlating each category with a specific behaviour. Dr Camila Ferrara, of the WCS Brazil programme, told BBC News: "The [exact] meanings aren't clear... but we think they're exchanging information. "We think sound helps the animals to synchronise their activities in the nesting season," she said. The noises the animals made were subtly different depending on their behaviour. For example, there was a specific sound when adults were migrating through the river, and another when they gathered in front of nesting beaches. There was a different sound again made by adults when they were waiting on the beaches for the arrival of their hatchlings. BBC © 2014
By Rebecca Boyle Like a dog wagging its tail in anticipation of treats to come, dolphins and belugas squeal with pleasure at the prospect of a fish snack, according to a new study. It’s the first direct demonstration of an excitement call in these animals, says Peter Madsen, a biologist at Aarhus University in Denmark who was not involved in the study. To hunt and communicate, dolphins and some whale species produce a symphony of clicks, whistles, squeaks, brays, and moans. Sam Ridgway, a longtime marine biologist with the U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, says he heard distinctive high-pitched squeals for the first time in May 1963 while training newly captured dolphins at the Navy’s facility in Point Mugu, California. “We were throwing fish in, and each time they would catch a fish, they would make this sound,” he says. He describes it as a high-pitched “eeee,” like a child squealing in delight. Ridgway and his collaborators didn’t think much of the sound until later in the 1960s, when dolphins trained to associate a whistle tone with a task or behavior also began making it. Trainers teach animals a task by rewarding them with a treat and coupling it with a special noise, like a click or a whistle. Eventually only the sound is used, letting the animal know it will get a treat later. The whistle was enough to provoke a victory squeal, Ridgway says. Meanwhile, beluga whales would squeal after diving more than 600 meters to switch off an underwater speaker broadcasting tones. “As soon as the tone went off, they would make this same sound,” Ridgway says, “despite the fact that they’re not going to get a reward for five minutes.” He also heard the squeal at marine parks in response to trainers’ whistles. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By NATALIE ANGIER SOUTH LUANGWA NATIONAL PARK, ZAMBIA — We saw the impala first, a young buck with a proud set of ridged and twisted horns, like helical rebar, bounding across the open plain at full, desperate gallop. But why? A moment later somebody in our vehicle gasped, and the answer became clear. Rising up behind the antelope, as though conjured on movie cue from the aubergine glow of the late afternoon, were six African wild dogs, running in single file. They moved with military grace and precision, their steps synchronized, their radio-dish ears cocked forward, their long, puppet-stick legs barely skimming the ground. Still, the impala had such a jump on them that the dogs couldn’t possibly catch up — could they? We gunned the engine and followed. The pace quickened. The dogs’ discipline held steady. They were closing the gap and oh, no, did I really want to watch the kill? To my embarrassed relief, the violence was taken off-screen, when prey and predators suddenly dashed up a hill and into obscuring bushes. By the time we reached the site, the dogs were well into their communal feast, their dark muzzles glazed with bright red blood, their white-tipped tails wagging in furious joy. “They are the most enthusiastic animals,” said Rosie Woodroffe of the Institute of Zoology in London, who has studied wild dogs for the last 20 years. “Other predators may be bigger and fiercer, but I would argue that there is nothing so enthusiastic as a wild dog,” she said. “They live the life domestic dogs wish they could live.” In 1997, while devising an action plan to help save the wild dog species, Lycaon pictus, Dr. Woodroffe felt anything but exuberant. Wild dogs were considered among the most endangered of Africa’s mammals; Dr. Woodroffe had yet to see one in the wild, and she feared she never would. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Ian Sample, science editor Stroke patients who took part in a small pilot study of a stem cell therapy have shown tentative signs of recovery six months after receiving the treatment. Doctors said the condition of all five patients had improved after the therapy, but that larger trials were needed to confirm whether the stem cells played any part in their progress. Scans of the patients' brains found that damage caused by the stroke had reduced over time, but similar improvements are often seen in stroke patients as part of the normal recovery process. At a six-month check-up, all of the patients fared better on standard measures of disability and impairment caused by stroke, but again their improvement may have happened with standard hospital care. The pilot study was designed to assess only the safety of the experimental therapy and with so few patients and no control group to compare them with, it is impossible to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the treatment. Paul Bentley, a consultant neurologist at Imperial College London, said his group was applying for funding to run a more powerful randomised controlled trial on the therapy, which could see around 50 patients treated next year. "The improvements we saw in these patients are very encouraging, but it's too early to draw definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of the therapy," said Soma Banerjee, a lead author and consultant in stroke medicine at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. "We need to do more tests to work out the best dose and timescale for treatment before starting larger trials." The five patients in the pilot study were treated within seven days of suffering a severe stroke. Each had a bone marrow sample taken, from which the scientists extracted stem cells that give rise to blood cells and blood vessel lining cells. These stem cells were infused into an artery that supplied blood to the brain. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited
By Victoria Gill Science reporter, BBC News Very mobile ears help many animals direct their attention to the rustle of a possible predator. But a study in horses suggests they also pay close attention to the direction another's ears are pointing in order to work out what they are thinking. Researchers from the University of Sussex say these swivelling ears have become a useful communication tool. Their findings are published in the journal Current Biology. The research team studies animal behaviour to build up a picture of how communication and social skills evolved. "We're interested in how [they] communicate," said lead researcher Jennifer Wathan. "And being sensitive to what another individual is thinking is a fundamental skill from which other [more complex] skills develop." Ms Wathan and her colleague Prof Karen McComb set up a behavioural experiment where 72 individual horses had to use visual cues from another horse in order to choose where to feed. They led each horse to a point where it had to select one of two buckets. On a wall behind this decision-making spot was a life-sized photograph of a horse's head facing either to left or right. In some of the trials, the horses ears or eyes were covered. Horse images used in a study of horse communication The ears have it: Horses in the test followed the gaze of another horse, and the direction its ears pointed If the ears and eyes of the horse in the picture were visible, the horses being tested would choose the bucket towards which its gaze - and its ears - were directed. If the horse in the picture had either its eyes or its ears covered, the horse being tested would just choose a feed bucket at random. Like many mammals that are hunted by predators, horses can rotate their ears through almost 180 degrees - but Ms Wathan said that in our "human-centric" view of the world, we had overlooked the importance of these very mobile ears in animal communication. BBC © 2014
By GREGORY HICKOK IN the early 19th century, a French neurophysiologist named Pierre Flourens conducted a series of innovative experiments. He successively removed larger and larger portions of brain tissue from a range of animals, including pigeons, chickens and frogs, and observed how their behavior was affected. His findings were clear and reasonably consistent. “One can remove,” he wrote in 1824, “from the front, or the back, or the top or the side, a certain portion of the cerebral lobes, without destroying their function.” For mental faculties to work properly, it seemed, just a “small part of the lobe” sufficed. Thus the foundation was laid for a popular myth: that we use only a small portion — 10 percent is the figure most often cited — of our brain. An early incarnation of the idea can be found in the work of another 19th-century scientist, Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard, who in 1876 wrote of the powers of the human brain that “very few people develop very much, and perhaps nobody quite fully.” But Flourens was wrong, in part because his methods for assessing mental capacity were crude and his animal subjects were poor models for human brain function. Today the neuroscience community uniformly rejects the notion, as it has for decades, that our brain’s potential is largely untapped. The myth persists, however. The newly released movie “Lucy,” about a woman who acquires superhuman abilities by tapping the full potential of her brain, is only the latest and most prominent expression of this idea. Myths about the brain typically arise in this fashion: An intriguing experimental result generates a plausible if speculative interpretation (a small part of the lobe seems sufficient) that is later overextended or distorted (we use only 10 percent of our brain). The caricature ultimately infiltrates pop culture and takes on a life of its own, quite independent from the facts that spawned it. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Nishad Karim African penguins communicate feelings such as hunger, anger and loneliness through six distinctive vocal calls, according to scientists who have observed the birds' behaviour in captivity. The calls of the "jackass" penguin were identified by researchers at the University of Turin, Italy. Four are exclusive to adults and two are exclusive to juveniles and chicks. The study, led by Dr Livio Favaro, found that adult penguins produce distinctive short calls to express their isolation from groups or their mates, known as "contact" calls, or to show aggression during fights or confrontations, known as "agonistic" calls. They also observed an "ecstatic display song", sung by single birds during the mating season and the "mutual display song", a custom duet sung by nesting partners to each other. Juveniles and chicks produce calls relating to hunger. "There are two begging calls; the first one is where chicks utter 'begging peeps', short cheeps when they want food from adults, and the second one we've called 'begging moan', which is uttered by juveniles when they're out of the nest, but still need food from adults," said Favaro. The team made simultaneous video and audio recordings of 48 captive African penguins at the zoo Zoom Torino, over a 104 non-consecutive days. They then compared the audio recordings with the video footage of the birds' behaviour. Additional techniques, including visual inspection of spectrographs, produced statistical and quantifiable results. The research is published in the journal PLOS One. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited
By PAUL VITELLO The conventional wisdom among animal scientists in the 1950s was that birds were genetically programmed to sing, that monkeys made noise to vent their emotions, and that animal communication, in general, was less like human conversation than like a bodily function. Then Peter Marler, a British-born animal behaviorist, showed that certain songbirds not only learned their songs, but also learned to sing in a dialect peculiar to the region in which they were born. And that a vervet monkey made one noise to warn its troop of an approaching leopard, another to report the sighting of an eagle, and a third to alert the group to a python on the forest floor. These and other discoveries by Dr. Marler, who died July 5 in Winters, Calif., at 86, heralded a sea change in the study of animal intelligence. At a time when animal behavior was seen as a set of instinctive, almost robotic responses to environmental stimuli, he was one of the first scientists to embrace the possibility that some animals, like humans, were capable of learning and transmitting their knowledge to other members of their species. His hypothesis attracted a legion of new researchers in ethology, as animal behavior research is also known, and continues to influence thinking about cognition. Dr. Marler, who made his most enduring contributions in the field of birdsong, wrote more than a hundred papers during a long career that began at Cambridge University, where he received his Ph.D. in zoology in 1954 (the second of his two Ph.D.s.), and that took him around the world conducting field research while teaching at a succession of American universities. Dr. Marler taught at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1957 to 1966; at Rockefeller University in New York from 1966 to 1989; and at the University of California, Davis, where he led animal behavior research, from 1989 to 1994. He was an emeritus professor there at his death. © 2014 The New York Times Company
|By Nathan Collins Time, space and social relationships share a common language of distance: we speak of faraway places, close friends and the remote past. Maybe that is because all three share common patterns of brain activity, according to a January study in the Journal of Neuroscience. Curious to understand why the distance metaphor works across conceptual domains, Dartmouth College psychologists used functional MRI scans to analyze the brains of 15 people as they viewed pictures of household objects taken at near or far distances, looked at photographs of friends or acquaintances, and read phrases such as “in a few seconds” or “a year from now.” Patterns of activity in the right inferior parietal lobule, a region thought to handle distance information, robustly predicted whether a participant was thinking about near versus far in any of the categories—indicating that certain aspects of time, space and relationships are all processed in a similar way in the brain. The results, the researchers say, suggest that higher-order brain functions are organized more around computations such as near versus far than conceptual domains such as time or social relationships. © 2014 Scientific American
Link ID: 19860 - Posted: 07.21.2014
By Meeri Kim Babies start with simple vowel sounds — oohs and aahs. A mere months later, the cooing turns into babbling — “bababa” — showing off a newfound grasp of consonants. A new study has found that a key part of the brain involved in forming speech is firing away in babies as they listen to voices around them. This may represent a sort of mental rehearsal leading up to the true milestone that occurs after only a year of life: baby’s first words. Any parent knows how fast babies learn how to comprehend and use language. The skill develops so rapidly and seemingly without much effort, but how do they do it? Researchers at the University of Washington are a step closer to unraveling the mystery of how babies learn how to speak. They had a group of 7- and 11-month-old infants listen to a series of syllables while sitting in a brain scanner. Not only did the auditory areas of their brains light up as expected but so did a region crucial to forming higher-level speech, called Broca’s area. A year-old baby sits in a brain scanner, called magnetoencephalography -- a noninvasive approach to measuring brain activity. The baby listens to speech sounds like "da" and "ta" played over headphones while researchers record her brain responses. (Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, University of Washington) These findings may suggest that even before babies utter their first words, they may be mentally exercising the pivotal parts of their brains in preparation. Study author and neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl says that her results reinforce the belief that talking and reading to babies from birth is beneficial for their language development, along with exaggerated speech and mouth movements (“Hiii cuuutie! How are youuuuu?”). © 1996-2014 The Washington Post