Mom’s voice gets special recognition in many brain circuits, Stanford study finds

Happy family outsoors on the grass in a park, smiling faces all lying down having fun

One of the most astonishing things about becoming a mom was realizing that my oldest child knew the sound of my voice just a few minutes after he was born. I’d read that babies prefer their own mother’s voice, but I wasn’t prepared for the look of recognition that was clearly dawning on my son’s face when he heard me say hello to him for the first time.

Although extensive research has documented the preference for – and emotional power of – our mother’s voice, the brain circuitry involved in this response has remained a mystery. A new Stanford study published two weeks ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences changes that. The study shows that Mom’s voice gets special treatment in a wider variety of her children’s brain areas than senior author Vinod Menon, PhD  and his team expected.

The researchers conducted MRI brain scans on children who were between 7 and 12 years old while they listened to very brief recordings of their biological mothers saying nonsense words. (Nonsense words were used to prevent the brain’s language-processing centers from muddying the results.) The kids’ brains were then scanned as they listened to the same nonsense words being spoken by women they had never met, and the brain responses to Mom’s voice and the strangers’ voices were compared. In addition, the researchers had the children’s parents answer a standard questionnaire to assess the children’s social communication abilities.

It turns out that the brain circuits that are activated by the sound of Mom’s voice handle emotions, rewards and more. From the Stanford School of Medicine’s press release about the findings:

The brain regions that were more engaged by the voices of the children’s own mothers than by the control voices included auditory regions, such as the primary auditory cortex; regions of the brain that handle emotions, such as the amygdala; brain regions that detect and assign value to rewarding stimuli, such as the mesolimbic reward pathway and medial prefrontal cortex; regions that process information about the self, including the default mode network; and areas involved in perceiving and processing the sight of faces.

“The extent of the regions that were engaged was really quite surprising,” Menon said

… Children whose brains showed a stronger degree of connection between all these regions when hearing their mom’s voice also had the strongest social communication ability, suggesting that increased brain connectivity between the regions is a neural fingerprint for greater social communication abilities in children.

The findings are exciting on their own, but they also leave the researchers with many more questions to explore. Do kids’ brains respond similarly to the voices of their fathers or adoptive mothers? What might the link between brain response and social communication ability mean for children with communication disorders such as those seen in autism? How does the brain’s response to our own mother’s voice change in adolescence?

“Mom’s voice is a big part of the soundtrack to childhood, but surprisingly little is known about how the brain organizes itself around this very important sound source for social, emotional and language learning,” the study’s first author, Dan Abrams, PhD, told me. The research team is eager to find out more.

Via Scope

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