Catherine Lebel, Frank P. MacMaster, Deborah Dewey Brain metabolite levels and language abilities in preschool children

Brain and Behavior, Available online 01 August 2016

Early childhood is punctuated by its shares of changes and learning opportunities. During this period, most children progressively acquire and master a wide range of language skills including reading. What governs children’s remarkable ability to learn and acquire language? Reading is a complex process: it requires the conversion of written symbols into sounds in order to derive meaning. Though research on the human brain has significantly enhanced our understanding of the brain basis of language, some gaps still persist in the area of language acquisition and its relationship to the maturing brain. We know from previous studies that structural and functional brain changes attributed to the acquisition of language are detectable as early as the preschool years. Metabolite concentrations have also been shown to be related to reading abilities in adults and older children (6-10 years). Do these relations exist in preschoolers?
To answer this question, we investigated the relationship between the brain’s chemical composition and pre-reading abilities: phonological awareness, which involves listening, identification and manipulation of sounds; and speed of naming. Choline, glutamate and other key metabolites were measured in 67 healthy children, aged between 3 and 5 years using magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

The results showed that children with higher phonological awareness abilities seem to have higher amounts of glutamate, inositol and creatine in their left anterior cingulate; a brain region involved in anticipation, error detection, decision making as well as other language tasks. While glutamate was shown in previous report to correlate with reading ability in 6-10 year old children, for the first time we describe the connection between creatine, inositol and language in young children. Though preliminary, these findings suggest that altered brain metabolism predates the appearance of language and reading impairments, opening the door for the development of better diagnostic and intervention tools for children with reading and language difficulties.

Full Article