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Published February 16, 2019

Helping Infants Prepare to Learn Language

April Benasich was the first researcher to show that an infant’s ability to effectively process rapid, successive nonspeech sounds (in the tens of milliseconds) was a critical component of learning speech. She demonstrated that babies who are poorer at processing these tiny bits of information are at much higher risk for later impairments in language and cognition. Her findings demonstrated that infants who lack adequate rapid auditory processing ability are, as children, much more likely to have problems with reading, speaking, and comprehension.

Benasich’s research, published in an array of journals, including a landmark study in the Journal of Neuroscience, revealed that an infant’s ability to efficiently discriminate and respond to these critical timing cues could be improved with a baby-friendly interactive play technique she developed. The technique gradually increases sensitivity to these important sounds and may prevent learning disorders from occurring as children grow and develop. The technique also sharpens the brain maps critical to early language development, helping mitigate language disorders even before babies speak their first word.

“Our hope is that we will be able to gently guide the brains of infants who are at the highest risk for language learning impairments to be more efficient processors so they can avoid the difficulties that result from struggling with language,” says Benasich, the first holder of the Elizabeth H. Solomon Endowed Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. She also directs the Infancy Studies Laboratory at the Center for Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University-Newark and the Carter Center for Neurocognitive Research. She is principal investigator in the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center of the National Science Foundation at the Institute for Neural Computation, University of California in San Diego.

Benasich earned doctoral degrees from New York University in experimental/cognitive neuroscience and clinical psychology, holds a bachelor’s degree in nursing, and has 15 years of experience in pediatric medicine.

Funding for the endowed chair created by Elizabeth H. Solomon, a longtime supporter of Benasich’s research, may help decrease the number of children who develop language disorders and ensure that innovative research will continue to thrive at Rutgers. Solomon “has been a shining example of how a continuing donation can have an extraordinary impact on the course of important research,” Benasich says. “The foresight and generosity of Solomon and the anonymous donors who made this endowed chair possible have ensured that research in this important but emerging field will continue in perpetuity, stimulating ongoing innovative research that employs a developmental approach to understanding brain-behavior relations.”

Solomon’s gift of $1 million was joined by $500,000 from an anonymous donor; the two gifts were matched by $1.5 million from another anonymous donor who pledged matching funds to establish a total of 18 endowed chairs at Rutgers.

 

In the Professor’s Own Words

What first drew you to this area of research?

From a very young age, I was always fascinated by science in general, everything from chemistry to biology to earth science. But in particular, I was enthralled with how the brain grows and develops over time from a few cells to the amazingly complex organ that constitutes the mature brain capable of sophisticated cognition and exalted thought.

What aspect of your work is most personally fulfilling?

Finding things out—research is still such an exciting adventure—and interacting with the many families who bring their babies to us so they can help us learn more about the developing brain.

What aspect is most challenging or frustrating?

Having to wait, often years, to untangle a research question. Longitudinal work is rewarding but challenging and expensive. Constantly having to find funding to support our work is the most difficult part of my job.

Where do you hope your research will be five years from now? 

I hope that we will be able to say that we have helped every child reach their full potential by providing information and training that can forestall language learning disorders. Addressing processing problems that impact language and cognition very early in infancy, before baby’s first words, has the promise of accomplishing that goal.

 

This story is part of Rutgers University Foundation’s Endowed Chairs Impact series. Supporting professorships and research helps spark innovation and creativity here in New Jersey and beyond. To talk with someone at the foundation about creating an endowed chair or professorship, please contact Christopher Needles RBS’97, vice president for development, at christopher.needles@ruf.rutgers.edu or 848-932-2227. If you would like to contribute to an existing professorship or a research project, visit our giving portal for a list of the most up-to-date funding opportunities.