Brain regions and functional interactions supporting early word recognition in the face of input variability [Psychological and Cognitive Sciences]
Perception and cognition in infants have been traditionally investigated using habituation paradigms, assuming that babies’ memories in laboratory contexts are best constructed after numerous repetitions of the very same stimulus in the absence of interference. A crucial, yet open, question regards how babies deal with stimuli experienced in a fashion similar to everyday learning situations—namely, in the presence of interfering stimuli. To address this question, we used functional near-infrared spectroscopy to test 40 healthy newborns on their ability to encode words presented in concomitance with other words. The results evidenced a habituation-like hemodynamic response during encoding in the left-frontal region, which was associated with a progressive decrement of the functional connections between this region and the left-temporal, right-temporal, and right-parietal regions. In a recognition test phase, a characteristic neural signature of recognition recruited first the right-frontal region and subsequently the right-parietal ones. Connections originating from the right-temporal regions to these areas emerged when newborns listened to the familiar word in the test phase. These findings suggest a neural specialization at birth characterized by the lateralization of memory functions: the interplay between temporal and left-frontal regions during encoding and between temporo-parietal and right-frontal regions during recognition of speech sounds. Most critically, the results show that newborns are capable of retaining the sound of specific words despite hearing other stimuli during encoding. Thus, habituation designs that include various items may be as effective for studying early memory as repeated presentation of a single word.
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