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"Lost Languages" May Influence Brain Development

Update Date: Nov 17, 2014 06:27 PM EST

Scientists have discovered for the first time neural evidence of "lost" languages in human brains.

Scientists found that "lost languages" or a person's mother tongue creates neural patterns that exist years later even if the child totally stops using the language. Researchers said the latest findings could have implications for families involved in international adoption.

"The infant brain forms representations of language sounds, but we wanted to see whether the brain maintains these representations later in life even if the person is no longer exposed to the language," first author Lara Pierce, a doctoral candidate at McGill University, said in a news release.

The latest study involved functional MRI scans of 48 girls between the ages of nine and 17. The girls were recruited from the Montreal area through the Department of Psychology.

Researchers noted that participants were divided into three groups: one that was raised unilingual in a French-speaking family, another group of had Chinese-speaking children adopted as infants who later became unilingual French speaking with no conscious recollection of Chinese, and finally with girls who were fluently bilingual in Chinese and French.

Researcher conducted brain scans of children as they listened to the same Chinese language sounds.

"It astounded us that the brain activation pattern of the adopted Chinese who 'lost' or totally discontinued the language matched the one for those who continued speaking Chinese since birth. The neural representations supporting this pattern could only have been acquired during the first months of life," Pierce said in a news release. "This pattern completely differed from the first group of unilingual French speakers."

Researchers said the latest findings suggest that early-acquired information is not only maintained in the brain, but unconsciously affects brain processing into adult development.

The article, "Mapping the unconscious maintenance of a lost first language," is in the November 17 edition of scientific journal PNAS.

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