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Poster E8, Friday, November 10, 10:00 – 11:15 am, Harborview and Loch Raven Ballrooms

Language Training Induces Changes in Cortical Thickness of the Developing Brain

Clara Kühn1, Clara E. M. Ekerdt1, Elisabeth Wenger2, Riccardo Cafiero1, Jens Brauer1, Angela D. Friederici1;1Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany, 2Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, Germany

The developing brain is subject to quite a number of maturational changes especially in early childhood. During the first years of life, the volume of a typically developing brain increases considerably as the cortical surface area expands and the cortical thickness decreases. Sensory input has a strong impact on brain development. In the domain of language, the developing brain is shaped by the way children perceive, process, and produce natural language. This observation leads to the question of whether language learning processes and brain development can be influenced by intervention and how the subsequent changes in brain and behavior are related. To shed light on these questions we examined whether children could be trained in specific language features (i.e., syntactic sentence structures and lexical item learning) and how the resulting changes in behavior would be reflected in the brain, specifically in cortical thickness and surface area. We conducted a 3-week training study with 4-year old children and collected structural MRI data before and after the training period. Participants were assigned to one of three groups: semantic training, syntax training, or control. Here we report results from the semantic (n = 19) and control groups (n = 20). The semantic group underwent a lexical training of 60 pseudo animals and their corresponding labels, which consisted of novel words. We hypothesized an increase in cortical thickness for children who underwent language training and a decrease for children who did not receive training, as well as a stronger surface area expansion for children who received training. We expected these effects to be strongest in language related regions of the brain such as inferior frontal regions, temporal regions and inferior parietal regions. We also looked at entorhinal and parahippocampal cortices as lexical-semantic learning heavily draws on memory processes. To compare changes in cortical thickness and surface area from pre- to posttest between the semantic and the control group we conducted a multivariate analysis of covariances in these regions. We showed that cortical thickness in left pars triangularis (BA45) in the inferior frontal gyrus changed differently for children in the semantic training group compared to the control group. While the control group showed a typical developmental decrease of cortical thickness from pre- to posttest, the semantic group retained their initial thickness level. Left pars triangularis has been implicated in semantic processes on the word level, e.g., lexical semantic access or categorization as well as processes on the sentence level, e.g., plausibility. We did not find a correlation between the change in cortical thickness and behavior. There were no differences between the groups in surface area change. Our results show that the semantic training had an effect on cortical thickness development, but not on surface area development. We interpret the differential trajectories of cortical thickness in semantic vs. control groups as semantic training attenuating typical developmental decreases in cortical thickness in this age group. The behavioral relevance of the observed attenuation of developmental decrease in cortical thickness remains to be investigated.

Topic Area: Language Development

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