Second trimester babies respond to speech before speech centers have developed: study

Researchers say the process is a “mystery, it’s magic, it’s divinity.”
Mon Jun 24, 2013 - 3:45 pm EST

June 24, 2013 ( – Every dad who has in vain attempted to “shush” a distraught child knows that there’s no soothing music like a mother's voice to get the job done. Until now he may not have known why.

Researchers penetrating the development of the child in the womb discovered that at just 29 weeks' gestation, the neurons in a preterm baby's brain are already reacting differently to different sounds (ba versus ga) and different voices (masculine versus feminine), well before the brain’s centers of speech have fully developed and migrated to their final location.

Researchers, who said they are astounded by the process, called an unborn baby’s development of linguistic functions a “sophisticated organization” that remained “elusive” to them.


Researchers used functional optical imaging on babies at 28 weeks gestation — the earliest age at which cortical responses to external stimuli can be recorded — to evaluate the babies’ brain responses to syllables.

Unable to materially account for how a baby could begin responding to his mother’s voice even before the linguistic function of the baby’s brain was fully formed, the researchers concluded that “regions involved in linguistic processing and social communication in humans” is influenced by unknown “innate factors”.

“That’s cool,” wrote Keith Barrington, a neonatologist and clinical researcher and chief of service at Sainte Justine University Health Center in Montréal, on a blog.“Language really is hard-wired into our brains.”

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As researchers use science to unpack the development of the baby from conception to birth, they continue to be spellbound by the process, calling it “mystery, it’s magic, it’s divinity.”

“Although some auditory capacities are described before term, whether and how such immature cortical circuits might process speech are unknown,” the researchers said in a study titled “Syllabic discrimination in premature human infants prior to complete formation of cortical layers” that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in January. 

  fetal development

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