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Neural basis of syntax in the developing brain

Final Report Summary - NEUROSYNTAX (Neural basis of syntax in the developing brain)

The NEUROSYNTAX project was established in order to specify the neural basis of sentence processing and its developmental changes. The project focused on development, as the previous knowledge about the language-brain relationship during ontogeny was limited, since most of the previous work had been done with adults. Specifically, the neural basis of syntax processing as a crucial capacity of the human species was the center of research questions. In a number of experimental studies, this project has contributed new insight into the relation between the stages of language acquisition and the maturation of the brain in childhood. Two age groups of children have participated in a number of experiments comprising behavioral, functional as well as structural brain imaging methods. This line of experimental groundwork made it possible to investigate and follow-up the children development in their language comprehension abilities as well as its corresponding brain functional and brain structural correlates.
Functionally, the project could show that children’s ability to process sentence-level linguistic information uses mainly semantic information in early stages of language acquisition, while syntactic information processing is used only at a later age. This more mature type of processing is similar to was can be seen for adult sentences processing. This finding is complemented by behavioral data that support these effects. Furthermore, we could show that the functional network of language-relevant brain regions of 5-year-old children is still very immature compared to the network of adults; and developmental changes in the ability to process sentence-level linguistic information over a one-year period is closely related to corresponding changes in the functional language network architecture in the same time window. On the brain structural level, we were able to track the concurrent maturation of the brain’s gray matter and white matter in a comprehensive analysis covering an age range of 4 to 7 years. In supporting behavioral studies, we examined mother-child interactions and found that the syntactic complexity mother’s use in interaction with their children is related to the child’s state of linguistic development but not the child’s age, while nonverbal means of interaction such as prosodic information are rather related to child’s age irrespective of the child’s linguistic state. This finding signifies mothers adjust their verbal and nonverbal interactions with their children. Moreover, we were able to relate the interaction between mothers and their 5-year-old children to the functional social brain network development.
For this project, new methodologies for MR-scanning of very young children were developed and successfully applied. These methods include the advancement of procedures for the preparation of children before scanning but also the implementation of technical assistance during MR-scanning.