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Reading to young kids may change brain activation

(Reuters Health) - Reading to small children may help prepare their brains for reading-readiness, a new study suggests.

In pre-kindergarten kids who were exposed to more reading at home, brain scans showed different patterns of brain activation than in kids who weren’t read to, researchers found.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that new parents read aloud to their babies from birth to foster early learning.

This is the first study to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans specifically to look at cognitive stimulation in the home and the brains of preschool-aged children, according to Dr. John S. Hutton of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio.

Most studies have involved older kids who may already be struggling with reading, he said.

Hutton presented the new results at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in San Diego on Saturday.

His team studied 19 preschoolers ages three to five, including seven kids from low-income households.

The primary caregivers filled out questionnaires on parent-child reading, access to books in the home, and parent-child interaction including talking, playing, and teaching kids to recognize numbers and shapes.

The kids then had fMRI scans while listening to age-appropriate stories via headphones. The scans detect changes in the flow of oxygen-rich blood in the brain, which indirectly assesses brain activity.

The more caregivers reported reading in the home, the more activation researchers saw in the parietal lobes – the areas of kids’ brains involved in the extraction of meaning from language.

“This was mostly attributed to semantics, understanding what’s being heard or read,” Hutton told Reuters Health by phone.

The researchers also saw activation in parts of the occipital lobes known to be important for visualization.

“In one of the most intriguing aspects, some of the greatest activation was in the visual part, the occipital lobe,” Hutton said. “A lot of it’s probably the task, imagining in their brain what’s going on in the story. These kids have more experience with seeing what they’re hearing.”

He and his coauthors accounted for some factors, like age, gender and parental income, but other factors may also influence brain activation while listening to a story, Hutton noted.

These results should reinforce the value of imagination, he said.

“Parents should definitely read often and read widely,” with back-and-forth conversation with kids, going beyond what’s on the page, he said.

“There has been some knowledge that early reading helps kids as well as other kinds of education,” said Dr. Fernando Mendoza of the Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California. “The more we can see the actual biology behind it, the more we get a sense that it is real.”

Mendoza was not a part of the new research.

“This emphasizes that the earlier that children are able to be exposed to reading, numbers, colors, the better it’s going to be for reading, which is a very important tool,” he told Reuters Health by phone.

“The earlier that starts, the better it is.”

SOURCE: Pediatric Academic Societies meeting, April 25, 2015.