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A mother's baby talk isn't easier to understand
by Brooks Hays
Paris (UPI) Jan 23, 2015

Study: Coma recovery aided by familial voices, stories
Chicago (UPI) Jan 23, 2015 - Bedside stories aren't just for going sleep, they're also for waking up -- from a coma. New research suggests familial voices stimulate the consciousness of comatose patients, shortening recovery time and improving post-coma brain health.

In a study conducted at Hines VA Hospital by researchers with Northwestern University, patients who were played recordings of familiar stories narrated by family members were more likely to wake up sooner and enjoy improved cognitive abilities compared to those who did not hear bedside tales.

"We believe hearing those stories in parents' and siblings' voices exercises the circuits in the brain responsible for long-term memories," lead author Theresa Pape, a neuroscientist at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine and Hines VA, said in a press release. "That stimulation helped trigger the first glimmer of awareness."

In addition to measuring the length of time before patients emerged from their comas, researchers tested each patient's responsiveness to visual and verbal cues. Coma patients aren't exactly asleep 24-7. In the wake of a traumatic brain injury, patients typically progress from coma to what's known as a minimally conscious or vegetative state.

While these states can last anywhere from a month to several years, they don't prohibit a patient from exhibiting a basic level of awareness -- often using their eyes to communicate, respond to stimuli and track people as they walk across the room.

In before and after tests, patients who listened to familial-read stories four to six times a day scored much higher on testing known as Familiar Auditory Sensory Training (FAST). MRIs showed that oxygen levels to important parts of the brain improved in before-and-after awareness testing.

"This indicates the patient's ability to process and understand what they're hearing is much better," Pape said, referring to patients' improved awareness test scores after six weeks of bedside stories. "At baseline they didn't pay attention to that non-familiar voice. But now they are processing what that person is saying."

The new study was published online this week in the journal Neurorehabilitation.

Slow and sing-song, with a diminutive -y added onto plenty of the words (yummy, tummy, potty) -- these are a few of the characteristics of baby talk, the way so many parents communicate with their young ones.

But turns out this might not be the most effective way to communicate with newborns and small children.

Then common defense of this practice is that it is a semi-unconscious attempt to slow down, enunciate syllables and clarify words, so that the developing brains of babies might be apt to pick up and understand language more easily.

According the researchers in Japan and Paris, this assumption is false. Baby talk is actually relatively harder to understand when compared with the way adults communicate with each other.

Scientists at RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan went about proving this by first recording the baby talk of 22 Japanese mothers. They then catalogued different similar sounding syllables and plotted their auditory likeness. Researchers used the technique -- developed by scientists at Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique, in Paris -- to plot the similarities and differences of the 118 most frequent syllables.

Finally, researchers compared and contrasted these syllables as they're used in baby talk and adult talk. It turns out, like-sounding syllables were more easily confused when employed during baby talk.

"This finding is important, because it challenges the widespread view that parents do and should hyperarticulate, using very robust data and an analysis based on a study of 10 times as many syllable contrasts as previous work," Alejandrina Cristia, one of the French scientists, explained.

"Our results suggest that, at least for learning sound contrasts, the secret to infants' language-learning genius may be in the infants themselves," said lead author Andrew Martin. "The fact that they are able to pick up sounds from input that is less clear than that used by adults with each other makes this accomplishment all the more remarkable."

Researchers speculated that while the words themselves may not be as clear, it's possible mothers are making a semi-conscious effort to communicate other things, such as emotional states.

The study, which was published this week in the journal Psychological Science, adds to a growing body of literature on the topic of baby talk -- though it's not entirely clear how this new data fits in. While some studies suggest children are best off being spoken to in complete sentences like an adult, other studies have shown infants and toddlers prefer the sing-song voice of so-called "parentese."

Perhaps the latest research confirms what most scientists already agree on, the developing brain is highly adaptive and capable. One study even found that babies' language-learning brain centers could be stimulated by lemur screeches.

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