MAY 19, 2016 5:53 AM PDT

A Mother's Voice in a Child's Brain

Much more so than a dog who harkens to his master’s voice on an old record label, children will always recognize and respond when they hear their mother’s voice. New research from Stanford University School of Medicine shows exactly where and how a child’s brain is engaged and activated when mom’s voice is heard.
Brain activity and a mom's voice

As it turns out, the regions of the brain that react more intensely to mom’s voice are more than just those involved in auditory processing. Much more of a child’s brain is active than previously thought including areas that process emotions, social interaction and recognition of faces.
 
The study was published online May 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study not only showed the where and how of brain connections in children hearing their mother’s voice, but also touched on how those connections relate to how well a child will do socially, with communication and interpersonal skills.
 
Daniel Abrams, PhD, instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and the lead author of the study said in a press release “Many of our social, language and emotional processes are learned by listening to our mom’s voice. But surprisingly little is known about how the brain organizes itself around this very important sound source. We didn’t realize that a mother’s voice would have such quick access to so many different brain systems.”
 
It’s always been demonstrated in research that children instinctively know their own mother’s voice over other voices and sounds and that reactions to hearing it are more intense than other reactions, even as soon as 1 day after birth. What wasn’t known is the action of the different areas of the brain and how they occur.. However, the mechanism behind this preference had never been defined.
 
The study included 24 children ages 7 to 12. All had IQs of at least 80, were neurotypical in development and had no mental or physical issues. All lived with their biological mothers. The children were given MRI scans, but before that each one’s mother was recorded speaking a few nonsense words. In addition to those voices, the voices of two women who did not have children in the study and who had never met any of the study participants were also recorded saying nonsense words. Nonsensical words were chosen for the study because if meaningful words were using, those meanings and associations would trigger different reactions in the brain.
 
While the children were in the MRI scanner they listened to sound clips of both groups of women, those of their mothers and those of the women they didn’t know. The clips varied in length but even in those just a second long, the children could identify their own mothers’ voices with greater than 97 percent accuracy.
 
In addition the part of the brain that processes auditory input, regions that reacted to the mom’s voices included those that processed reward such as the mesolimbic region and the amygdala that processes emotions and there was even activity in the part of the brain that handles facial recognition. The study author’s were surprised that so many more regions than expected were activated just by a sound clip. The team hopes that the research could have implications in finding treatments for children with autism or other issues that impact their social and emotional functioning. The video below explains more about the research and it’s possible implications, check it out.
 
Sources: Stanford University, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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