brainscanInterventions in children who have neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or dyslexia where language can be delayed should be undertaken before the age of 4, researchers have claimed.

Researchers from King’s College London and Brown University in the US have identified how the ‘wiring’ in toddlers’ brains develops to successfully learn language. The study reveals a particular window, from 2 years to the age of 4, during which environmental influence on language development may be greatest.

The findings help explain why, in a bilingual environment, very young  typically developing children are better capable of becoming fluent in both languages; and why interventions for neurodevelopmental disorders where language is impaired, such as autism, may be much more successful if implemented at a very young age.

Children develop from a limited vocabulary of up to 50 words at the age of one to a vocabulary of about 5,000 by age 6. In order to investigate the brain anatomy that develops to support this intense linguistic development, researchers studied 108 typically developing children between the ages of 1 and 6. They used a novel magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) method to determine the levels of a substance called myelin and its distribution across the two hemispheres of the brain, known as myelin asymmetry.

Myelin surrounds the axons of a neuron, allowing it to communicate much more efficiently with other neurons. People are born with very little myelin but it develops rapidly after birth in response to environment and neuronal activity. The human brain is asymmetric for certain abilities and language, for example, tends to be localised on the left side of the brain in the frontal and temporal lobes.

Most children pick up language effortlessly, and at an incredibly fast rate. The researchers hypothesised that much more myelin would develop on the left side of the brain and that this asymmetry would continue to get stronger as children learned language.

In fact, they found that the asymmetry remained relatively constant no matter what age the children were. But they found that the influence of this asymmetry on language ability changed with time – suggesting an age-specific influence of brain structure and myelin on language function.

Dr Jonathan O'Muircheartaigh, lead author from King’s College London and Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow, said: “Our study shows that regions of the brain that weren't important to successful language in toddlers became more important in older children, about the time they start school. As language becomes more complex and children become more proficient, it seems as if they use different regions of the brain to support it.”

The researchers added that increasing our understanding of typical brain growth patterns of myelination and asymmetry may help shed light on if, where and when this process of myelination is going off track in disorders where language is altered or delayed, such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia. The window identified in this study suggests that any interventions aimed at improving language-related symptoms of these disorders would need to take place very early on, before the age of 4.

Dr Sean Deoni, senior author of the study from Brown University, says: “This work is important as it is the first to investigate the relationship between brain structure and language across early childhood and demonstrate how this relationship changes with age. This is important since language is commonly altered or delayed in many developmental disorders, such as autism.”