Study finds early signs of bookishness in a child’s brain

mother reading to son

A brain scanning study links a bookish home to different brain activity in preschoolers.

Pamela Moore/istockphoto

At just 9 months old, my younger daughter is captivated by books. She reaches out and turns pages, grunts at the pictures and chews on the corners. This is a relief because as the second kid, she didn’t have as much quiet reading time as my older daughter, especially in those first few months. It was hard to find time to sit still and read to our nearsighted newborn while chasing a careening toddler around.

I’ve forgiven myself for this lapse, even though I knew that last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents begin reading to children as soon as they are born.

There are plenty of good reasons to start reading to kids early. Even for newborns, time spent quietly connecting with a loved one is packed with goodness. Babies listen to parents’ voices, smell their comforting scent and get used to the sound of words. An early start (and loose expectations) makes reading time more likely to cement into ritual, one that’s good for both parents and kids.

A house packed with books may also influence a child’s brain, suggests an interesting study published August 10 in Pediatrics. Researchers led by pediatrician John Hutton used functional MRI to scan the brains of 19 children from ages 3 to 5.  While in the scanner, the kids listened to a story that included tantalizing plot twists like, “The frog jumped over the log.” All the while, the kids’ brains chugged away while they imagined this action.

These preschoolers came from homes with varying levels of bookishness, measured by a questionnaire that asked about the number and variety of books in the home, visits to the library and amount of reading per week.

Compared with kids with few books in their lives, kids who came from more book-friendly homes showed signs of higher brain activation in a particular stretch of neural tissue on the back left side of the brain, the researchers found. Called the parietal-temporal-occipital region, this particular patch of brain real estate has been linked to mental imagery and story comprehension, jobs that let kids vividly imagine the frog jumping over the log.  

As with all studies, this one comes with caveats. Because the study caught kids at a single point in time, the scientists can’t say whether a home full of books actually caused these differences in brain behavior. “Our study, the way it’s designed, can only show association,” says Hutton, of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio. “It provides a signal for areas that we think are going to be important.”

The study raises other questions, too:  It’s not clear just how this pattern of brain activity relates to reading behavior, or whether it lasts as children grow. What’s more, the fMRI signal relies on changes in blood movement as a proxy for brain activity, and some studies are starting to hint that this proxy may not be totally reliable in kids.

Another lingering question: Do digital books on screens have similar effects? These days, reading can take many forms, and it’s unknown how books on iPads or computers influence a child’s brain. Although scientists are still struggling to understand how technology influences kids, Hutton says digital books are probably OK, assuming that the parent and child are still engaged with each other. “I think there is value to all of them as long as the parent stays involved in the process with the child, and the child is encouraged to use his imagination as much as possible.”

The results of this early study are definitely interesting, but there’s so much more to learn about how books worm their way into growing brains. 

Laura Sanders

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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