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Originally published Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Infants learn earlier than thought

Scans of young brains by UW researchers show infants are far more aware of their surroundings than they may appear to be.

The (Vancouver) Columbian

Until recently, humans could safely view their brains as fatty, spongy masses of electrifying wonder. Brains are, in a sense, a secret place no one else can tap into unless we let them; they are our memory banks and central control centers that dictate how we behave and reason and interact with others.

But in the past decade, neuroscientists across the world have started to peer into the young brain to determine exactly how we learn. Examining their findings, researchers say that learning starts at birth, and perhaps even earlier.

"It's too late to wait until the age of 5 and expect that teachers in schools are going to be able to catch them," University of Washington professor Patricia Kuhl said.

Kuhl is co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Science in Seattle (ILABS).

"Children who are behind stay behind."

Currently, researchers at ILABS secure babies with nylon caps with suction-cuplike electrodes that can read their neuronal activity. Next year, ILABS researchers will be the first in the world to use a $2.5 million machine to test the faint magnetic fields that emanate from a child's brain.

The money for the magnetoencephalography machine came from the state's Life Sciences Discovery Fund, which includes the tobacco-settlement bonus.

The nylon cap brain scans show that infants are far more aware of their surroundings than they may appear. Within days, little ones can recognize familiar faces and sounds. Soon after, they start mimicking vowels. And at 6 months of age, babies can distinguish between the sounds of all languages (the adult brain cannot).

The MEG machine will be able to identify precisely what part of the brain is stimulated when an infant interacts with her mother, for example, as opposed to a stranger.

Danielle Kassow, researcher at Thrive By Five Washington, a public-private venture that aims to increase early education across the state, says that improved brain research has confirmed older empirical research and pushed lawmakers to fund early-education programs.

In Washington, where kindergarten teachers say fewer than half of their students are ready on Day 1, that work began in 2006 with the launch of Thrive and the state's Department of Early Learning. In Clark County school districts, curriculum directors have started using brain studies to pick textbooks and help teachers hone instruction.

The role of parents

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That children soak up their surroundings isn't groundbreaking. An oft-cited study from 1995 showed that there's a gap of 32 million words between children on welfare and children from affluent homes.

Children from impoverished families are more likely to hear directives, Kuhl said, in the form of "do this" and "do that."

In educated families, she said, "Conversations are more varied — what you dream about, what you can imagine, what other people think — more complex thoughts that provide the kinds of stimulation that kids' brains need."

Acquiring a rich vocabulary isn't like cramming for the Graduate Record Examination, however. Professor Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University writes in her 2007 book, "Proust and the Squid," that words inform concepts that enrich a child's understanding of the world. If those concepts are learned, she argues there is "less ability to infer and to predict."

Genetics lay out our neurological blueprint, but parents wire our brains, Kassow says.

Babies develop signals to get an adult's attention — they might cry, look at the adult, coo or reach out their arms. When the adult responds, the baby is soothed by the attention, as evidenced by the reduction in cortisol levels, known as the stress hormone. Researchers who study child attachment have argued this for years, and brain-scan research confirms their work.

Studying language

In 2008, ILABS studied how 9-month-olds process language spoken to them. One group was placed in front of a television where another language was being spoken. Another group spent time with an adult who spoke that language, and a third stayed in the native English-speaking environment.

The UW group found that children who learned from adults were on track to becoming native speakers. Brain scans of children who were supposed to be learning from the television showed no advancement. Those infants appeared transfixed by the television but hadn't learned a thing.

"Babies need people to learn a language," Kuhl said, which may help explain why autistic children are linguistically delayed. Autistic children are less interested in interacting with their parents, and therefore aren't getting the same language inputs as non-autistic children.

Read to your child

The bottom line, scientists say, is that no amount of teacher training, brain scans or curriculum research can trump the parent-child connection.

They say that parents should start reading to their child in utero. And when the child is born, keep reading aloud, as it introduces the baby to the cadence of written language.

"You can read an 8-month-old racing results, stock prices or Dostoyevsky," Wolf writes in "Proust and the Squid," "although an illustrated version would be even better."

Wolf says that connection between being read to and feeling loved is the best prescription for developing a vocabulary, learning concepts and, ultimately, learning how to read.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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