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CUHK develops brain method to forecast infants' future language development
Ms. Chow’s daughter conducts the EEG test at CUHK Brain and Mind Institute. Image: CUHK.

HONG KONG.- Linguistic and Paediatric researchers from The Chinese University of Hong Kong have developed a test to predict infants’ future language ability by electroencephalography (EEG). It could indicate to parents at the earliest possible time that intervention may be needed to reduce the severity of potential language impairment as well as to optimise language learning for all children.

The team led by Professor Patrick Wong, Stanley Ho Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Professor of Linguistics, along with Professor Ting Fan Leung and Professor Simon Lam of the Department of Paediatrics, Faculty of Medicine, CUHK (CU Medicine), has devised a method which uses a simple EEG test to forecast language developmental outcomes. The team enrolled 118 infants up to 12 months of age from Chinese-speaking families, and administered an EEG test to measure how an infant’s nervous system responded to different Chinese speech sounds while the infant was held by their caregiver and sleeping. About 1.5 years later when these children could use spoken language for communication, the team measured their language functions to see who had become better or worse language users. The EEG data obtained during infancy and the later language data were used to construct a predictive algorithm for forecasting language development in individual children.

Poor language skills can place a long-term burden on both individuals and society, because they are linked to mental health and behavioral adjustment, academic achievement, and employment. Without intervention, language development remains remarkably stable. Children who are ranked low in language and communication ability among their peers at 2 years of age continue to rank low at age 15 years. Part of this developmental stability comes from the child’s environment, including interaction between parents and children. With early intervention, language can be improved, as the nervous system is at its most plastic in the early years. Interventions that are delivered early have higher economic returns than those administered later in life.

Early detection is important when it comes to many domains of development including language. “Parents generally don’t want to wait for a problem to surface before they act. That’s why having a prognostic tool is important. We want the child to engage in activities and even therapy that promote language development more intensively should we believe that language development would likely to be challenging for that child,” said Professor Patrick Wong.

“The predictive models we constructed using neural measures substantially outperformed models constructed using traditional clinical factors such as birth weight and gestational age,” said Professor TF Leung.

“Spoken language development begins with an infant being able to differentiate minute acoustic differences in the speech signal (e.g., the difference between ‘mother’ and ‘horse’ in Cantonese). Measuring how an infant’s central nervous system encodes and differentiates speech sounds gave us the best chance to predict early language development,” explained Professor Wong. “Because infants cannot talk, we cannot reliably access their language development using behavioral methods, and therefore a simple EEG test is preferable.”

“An important feature of our technology is that it is precise enough to make prediction at the level of the individual child” stated Dr. Nikolay Novitskiy, a co-author of the study at the Brain and Mind Institute, CUHK.

“We hope that this EEG test and our predictive algorithm can in the future be adopted in the routine universal newborn hearing screening test so that in addition to testing an infant’s hearing sensitivity to rule out hearing impairment, we could also obtain some information about whether or not the child will likely develop language impairment,” added Professor Simon Lam.

This research was supported by a grant from the Innovation and Technology Fund.

Professor Wong will discuss these findings and strategies for enhancing early language development in upcoming webinars for parents of children between 0 to 3 years old.

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