‘Baby Talk’ Could Help Spot Infants With Autism

Wednesday, January 5, 2022 – The sing-along speech that parents use when talking to their children is universal, and infants tend to prefer it.

So, when a child doesn’t seem to be dealing with this melodic “mother” or baby talk, it could be an early sign of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have used several techniques to identify the areas of the brain responsible for a child’s reaction to baby talk — such as a dog for a dog or a horse for a horse.

Said senior author Eric Korcheson, professor of neuroscience and co-director of the Center of Excellence for Autism at UCLA.

The researchers hope to gain objective insights into how the brain develops in children with autism.

“For the first time, we’re seeing the potential impact on the brain of children with autism who don’t pay attention to social information,” Korcheson said in a university news release.

Investigators suspected that young children with autism spectrum disorder have impaired the development of innate mechanisms that respond to children’s speech.

To test this, they ran a series of tests on 71 children and 14 adults.

They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the brain activity of the sleeping babies in response to the baby’s speech and other speech. The researchers also assessed the young people’s social and linguistic development and used eye-tracking technology to measure their responses to women with baby talk as well as computer sounds and nonverbal images.

Young children with autism have been found to show less interest in activities and social stimuli that normally attract a young child’s attention, such as watching other children play, sing or dance.

This study also found different responses between young adults who typically had the developmental phase and those with ASD.

Those children with the poorest neural responses to baby talk showed the most severe social symptoms, poorer language outcomes, and poorer behavioral preference and interest in baby talk.

By comparison, infants and toddlers of typical development showed the strongest responses and affinity to infant talk.

The researchers confirmed the findings by correlating eye gaze patterns with brain responses and behaviour.

The superior temporal cortex, an area of ​​the brain that processes sounds and language, responds poorly to infant speech and emotional speech in children with autism.

The opposite was true among typically developing children, although eye-tracking found strong brain activity and interest in infant speech in some young children with autism.

“The fact that so few children with autism showed strong brain activity and a good interest in maternal speech is encouraging for two reasons: first, because it indicates that these particular children with autism are likely to have good outcomes,” said a study co-author. Karen Pierce, UCSD professor of neurosciences and co-director of the Autism Center of Excellence, “and secondly, suggests a new area of ​​therapy.”

The authors said their findings could lead to the development of diagnostic tools and biomarkers for the early identification of autism spectrum disorder.

The study was published on January 3 in The nature of human behavior.


  • University of California San Diego Health, Press Release, January 3, 2022

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