Neural responses to speech in infants predict literacy

The ability of infants to process speech in the brain can predict later development of language and literacy. Recent research findings can help to develop new ways of preventing problems with reading even before school age.

An extensive study carried out under the DyslexiaBaby project at the University of Helsinki found that stronger neural responses measured in the brain in infancy to changes in speech sounds were associated with better pre-reading skills, such as rapid naming. These skills are key to the development of literacy.

In the study, children were followed from birth to between 4 and 5 years of age as part of the DyslexiaBaby longitudinal study. The research group measured children’s neural responses to changes in speech sounds with the help of electroencephalography. The measurement was carried out on subjects at birth and again at the age of 2.5 years. Some babies had a hereditary risk for developmental dyslexia, a learning disorder that can impair speech processing abilities and language development. 

It was found in the study that strong neural responses dominant in the left side of the brain to changes in speech sounds in infants and at 2.5 years of age predicted good pre-reading skills at 2.5 and 4 to 5 years of age. Moreover, the more similar the neural responses of 2.5-year-olds to those of adults, the more advanced the children’s pre-reading skills. In contrast, a diagnosed hereditary risk of dyslexia weakened pre-reading skills.

In other words, measuring neural responses can provide essential information on the future development of language and literacy in children. 

“Delays in the development of language and literacy, as well as dyslexia and other learning difficulties, are common among the population. According to our research, these developmental delays can be investigated from birth,” says Doctoral Researcher Sergio Navarrete Arroyo, the first author of the study.

The results have been accepted for publication in the Clinical Neurophysiology journal.

Early support is important

The first months of life have a special significance for learning the phonemes of one’s first language, laying the groundwork for the later development of language and literacy.

Detecting delays in the development of reading skills as early as possible can provide better opportunities for their prevention and treatment. According to the researchers, early intervention and support are of chief importance, especially for children with a hereditary risk of dyslexia.

In fact, an earlier sub-study of the DyslexiaBaby study found that simple music listening exercises can support infants’ speech processing abilities. The observation can help develop cost-efficient and easily implemented ways of supporting the development of speech processing. 

“The findings highlight the importance of infancy and early childhood as an early opportunity to support children and families, clearing the way for good cognitive development and mental wellbeing,” says University Researcher Paula Virtala from the DyslexiaBaby and BusyBaby projects.

BusyBaby study looking for participants

Based on the results of the DyslexiaBaby study, a new intervention study entitled BusyBaby and targeted at infants and toddlers and their families will be launched at the University of Helsinki in spring 2024. The project will investigate whether playful group activities (musical playschool and family circus) in toddler-age can support language development, and how dyslexia risk affects this development.

The aim of the study is to develop ways of supporting language development and preventing problems with reading. Families with small babies and living in the Helsinki region are being sought for the BusyBaby project, particularly those where at least one parent has dyslexia.

Read more on the project website (in Finnish only). 

The BusyBaby project belongs to the Finnish Research Council's Centre of Excellence for Music, Mind, Body, and Brain.

Further information

Paula Virtala, PhD (Psychology), University Researcher, DyslexiaBaby and BusyBaby projects, University of Helsinki

Original article: Navarrete Arroyo, S., Virtala, P., Nie, P., Kailaheimo-Lönnqvist, L., Salonen, S., & Kujala, T. (in press). Infant mismatch responses to speech-sound changes predict language development in preschoolers at risk for dyslexia. Clinical Neurophysiology.