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Investigating how young brains become mature minds

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” Dr. April Benasich already realizes the truth behind this saying; what she is investigating is how young brains develop into adult minds.

As director of the Infancy Studies Laboratory at the Rutgers Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Benasich’s research focuses on brain development in infancy and early childhood, specifically the neural processes necessary for normal language and cognitive development. She uses a mix of cutting-edge technologies, including measurement of auditory evoked brain potentials (EEG/ERPs) and naturally sleeping MRI/fMRI, that add converging noninvasive physiological measures to her lab’s extensive behavioral battery.

Benasich’s work demonstrated for the first time that the ability to perform fine non-speech acoustic discriminations in early infancy is critically important to  -- and highly predictive of -- later language development in normally developing children, as well as children at risk for language disorders. These data further suggest that measures of rapid auditory processing ability may be used to identify and remediate infants at highest risk of language delay and impairment regardless of risk status.

The researcher hopes that by studying perceptual, linguistic and cognitive abilities in children from infancy through childhood, she can determine how such processes impact learning across development. She and her colleagues have also developed a patent-pending behavioral intervention for infants that may well ameliorate or forestall later language disorders in infants at higher risk for such impairments.

Currently Benasich is part of the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (TDLC), a Science of Learning Center (SLC), funded by the National Science Foundation. TDLC is dedicated to the goal of understanding the role of time and timing in learning, on time scales ranging from milliseconds (the time scale at which brain cells connect) to years (the time scale of learning to be an expert). The TDLC, founded in 2006, just received an $18 million renewal grant and teams Benasich with researchers at 17 partner research institutions, including UCSD, the Salk Institute, UC Berkeley, Vanderbilt University and institutions in three other countries.

Benasich’s groundbreaking work has been avidly tracked by the media, most recently with her participation in the PBS special "The New Science of Learning: Brain Fitness for Kids,” and extensive coverage in a 2011 Scientific American article on “Neuroeducation” that featured her research and the infant intervention (using an engaging sound and light show) that she and her team have developed.

 Benasich most recently is co-editor (with R. Holly Fitch) of Developmental Dyslexia: Early Precursors, Neurobehaviorial Markers, and Biological Substrates (Brookes, March 2012).

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