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Baby Talk: Standards Help Researchers to Demonstrate Babies’ Preference for Repetitive Sounds

New York  August 27, 2008


Parents are universally delighted to hear their child’s first words, but until recently the reason a baby first speaks a certain word has been a mystery. Researchers at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Infant Study Centre can now explain why “mama” and “dada” are so often a baby’s first words. Using optical brain imaging techniques that have been developed with the help of standards, studies revealed that the human brain is hard-wired from birth to recognize certain patterns of repetition.

In the experiment, researchers recorded brain activity while infants were hearing different words – some with repetitive elements, like “mubaba” and “penana,” and others without this repetition, like “mubage” and “penaku.” Through the use of near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), researchers saw that the babies showed increased activity in the temporal and left frontal areas of the brain when listening to the repetitive words, demonstrating an inherent preference for this type of sound.

NIRS is a non-invasive optical imaging technique used to assess brain function. In the UBC study, infants were outfitted with a special cap that recorded their brain activity through the use of optical sensors. By monitoring the level of oxygenation in different areas of the brain, the sensors provide an indirect measure of how active each area is in response to certain stimuli. This technique is particularly useful for infants as no conscious response is required – babies need only lie down and relax, or even sleep, while the cap measures brain activity.

A standard developed by ASTM International, an organizational member and audited designator of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), provides guidelines for researchers using NIRS technology. ASTM E1655-05, Standard Practices for Infrared Multivariate Quantitative Analysis, guides the use of infrared spectrometers to determine and analyze the physical or chemical characteristics of materials.

The Infant Studies Centre also studies children’s brain activity through the use of event-related potential (EVP) technology. Similar to NIRS, EVP uses a special cap to measure brain activity; however, unlike NIRS, EVP studies take place while the baby is sitting with a parent, watching a silent movie, and listening to speech sounds.

EVP technology uses electrodes to act as microphones for brain activity. The Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI), an ANSI organizational member and accredited standards developer, furthered the development of electrode use in medical technology with its publication, ANSI/AAMI EC12:2000/(R)2005, Disposable ECG electrodes, 3ed. This American National Standard establishes minimum labeling, safety and performance requirements; test methods; and terminology for disposable electrocardiographic (ECG) electrodes.

From first steps to first words and sentences, parents are fascinated by their child’s development. With the help of standards, families now have some insight into the way that little ones understand language and learn to speak.


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