Lack of Engagement During “Baby Talk” Could Point to Autism in Infants, Study Suggests

No matter what language they speak or what kind of background they come from, parents around the world all tend to talk to their babies in the same way: using a high-pitched, sing-song style speech known as “baby talk” or “motherese.” They also have a tendency to make “cute” changes to certain words, like using “horsie” for horse or “doggie” for dog.

Not only is baby talk the preferred method for parents to communicate with infants, it also appears to be the way babies like to be communicated with as well. So when babies don’t have a typical response to this tone of voice, researchers believe it could be a sign of autism.

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Previous research and observation has demonstrated that children on the autism spectrum tend to show a lack of interest in social activities and the traditional stimuli that would attract a young child’s attention, such as watching other people sing or dance or talk. Therefore, it made sense for researchers to suspect that children with ASD experience an impaired development of the innate mechanisms that respond to such stimuli.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, measured infants’ eye movement and brain activity in response to baby talk. Their hope was to gain insights into how the brains of children with autism develop differently than those without the disorder.

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“This new study, which combined state-of-the-art brain imaging, eye-tracking, and clinical testing, opens the door toward precision medicine in autism,” says senior author Eric Courchesne, a professor of neuroscience and co-director of the Autism Center of Excellence at UCSD.

The researchers conducted testing with 71 toddlers and 14 adults. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity during sleep in response to baby talk and other speech. They also assessed social and language development and tracked eye movement in response to images and non-speech computer sounds compared to women speaking baby talk.

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The study found differing responses, as anticipated, among participants with and without autism. Children with autism tended to have a weaker response to baby talk and emotional speech in the temporal cortex, an area of the brain that processes sounds and language. Those children with the poorest neural responses and attention to baby talk showed the most pronounced autism symptoms, the poorest language skills, and the most impaired social and behavioral preferences.

Also as expected, typically developing children showed a stronger affinity for baby talk in both their eye movements and brain and behavior responses than their autistic counterparts.

“For the first time, we are seeing what the possible brain impact is for children with autism who fail to pay attention to social information,” Courchesne says.

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These findings could lead to the development of new diagnostic tools and biomarkers to help us identify autism spectrum disorder as early as infancy. Early detection allows for early interventions and better outcomes for children on the spectrum.

“The fact that a few children with autism did show strong brain activation and good attention to motherese speech is encouraging for two reasons: First, because it suggests that these particular toddlers with autism are likely to have good outcomes,” says study co-author Karen Pierce, a professor of neurosciences at UCSD and co-director of the Autism Center of Excellence. “And second, it suggests a novel area for treatment.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

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