Does a mother’s voice influence a child’s social communication abilities?

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Science Translational Medicine  15 Jun 2016:
Vol. 8, Issue 343, pp. 343ec95
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aag1874

A mother’s voice connects with her child from birth. A mother sometimes speaks nonsense but loving phrases even before her baby can smile back, and over time a mother’s voice develops deep meaning in a child’s life. A mother’s voice brings comfort, and nurtures and guides social function during her child’s development. To study the neural activity in response to a mother’s voice, Abrams and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity in 24 healthy children (mean age 10 years) while they listened to short (<1 s) nonsense words produced by their biological mother and two female control voices. Relationships between speech-evoked neural activity and social function were explored. Compared with female control voices, a mother’s voice produced greater activity in the superior temporal sulcus, a key node of the speech perception network connecting the auditory cortex with regions responsible for emotion regulation and reward response. A mother’s voice also produced greater activity in the primary auditory regions in the cortex and midbrain, the amygdala (which is crucial for emotion regulation), the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex of the reward circuit, the anterior insula and cingulate of the salience network, and a specific area of the fusiform gyrus associated with face perception. Importantly, the strength of brain connectivity between the voice-selective superior temporal sulcus and regions of the brain responsible for emotion regulation, reward, face-processing, memory, and salience regions during perception of a mother’s voice predicted social communication skills. Overall, these new findings provide brain signatures of social communication with their own mothers among typically developing children. However, many questions remain. When do the circuits underlying recognition of a mother’s voice become mature? Can specific qualities of a mother’s voice promote social communication? What about a father’s voice? The current findings provide a basis for future investigations that may answer these questions and may also encourage further studies of typical social development as well as neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, in which perception of socially salient voices is aberrant.

D. A. Abrams et al., Neural circuits underlying mother's voice perception predict social communication abilities in children. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 113, 6295–6300 (2016). [Full Text]

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