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Scientific result | Cognition
The immature brain of a premature infant is capable, at
the age of three months pre-term, of distinguishing syllables uttered
by male and female voices. These results obtained by INSERM researchers
at the University of Picardy Jules Verne and the CEA’s NeuroSpin Imaging
Centre, were published in the PNAS journal dated 25 February 2013. They
highlight the very early sophisticated organisation of the regions of
the brain involved in language-processing and social communication in
At birth, infants are capable of distinguishing between similar
syllables, of recognising their mother’s voice and of differentiating
between several human languages. Are these abilities in the human infant due to
the presence of innate mechanisms specific to the human race for processing
speech or do they indicate swift learning of the characteristics of the mother’s
voice during the final weeks of pregnancy?
To discover the truth, Fabrice Wallois, Director of the mixed UPJV/INSERM
research unit known as the “Research Group for Analysis of the Multimodal
Cerebral Function” (GRAMFC), and Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz, (INSERM,
NeuroSpin/Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA), University of
Paris-Sud) in collaboration with hospital doctors at the Amiens Picardy
University Hospital, tested the auditory discrimination abilities of twelve
premature babies, born at 28 to 32 weeks of amenhorræa, i.e. born two to three
months’ pre-term. At this stage of development, the brain is immature since the
neurones are still in the process of migrating to their final destination. Yet
the first connections between the brain and the outside world are being set up,
especially those that enable the fœtus to hear sounds, thus enabling it to
record the first brain responses to external stimulation. The authors of this
study stimulated premature infants by using audio stimulation, exposing them to
the sounds of two similar syllables (“ga” and “ba”) pronounced by either a man
or a woman. They recorded the brain responses by using functional optical
imaging (near infrared spectroscopy (NIS)).
The researchers were thus able to show that despite the fact that their
brains were still immature, the premature babies were receptive to changes in
the voice (male or female) and changes in phonemes ( “ba” or “ga”) Furthermore
the sets or networks of neurones involved in premature babies are very similar
to those described in the adult when performing the same type of task. They are
asymmetrical and especially involve the frontal areas. As in adults, the right
frontal area responds to newness, regardless of the change involved, whereas the
left frontal area or Broca’s region, only responds to a change of phoneme.
These results show very early, as soon as the first cerebral connections are
established (three months before term) and above all before any learning process
has occurred, that the human brain is capable of processing special
characteristics of human speech thanks to the sophisticated organisation of
certain language areas of the brain (the right and left perisylvian regions).
Since the organisation of the regions of the brain being governed by genetic
expression during the development of the fœtus, the authors suggest that the
emergence of language is largely influenced by genetics and thus by innate
Syllabic discrimination in premature human infants prior to complete formation of cortical layersSupporting Information
CEA is a French government-funded technological research organisation in four main areas: low-carbon energies, defense and security, information technologies and health technologies. A prominent player in the European Research Area, it is involved in setting up collaborative projects with many partners around the world.