Mom's voice activates many different regions in children's brains

Children’s brains are far more engaged by their mother’s voice than by voices of women they do not know, a new study from the Stanford University School of Medicine has found.

Brain regions that respond more strongly to the mother’s voice extend beyond auditory areas to include those involved in emotion and reward processing, social functions, detection of what is personally relevant and face recognition.


Mom's voice activates many different regions in children's brains


The study, which is the first to evaluate brain scans of children listening to their mothers’ voices, published online May 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The strength of connections between the brain regions activated by the voice of a child’s own mother predicted that child’s social communication abilities, the study also found.

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“Many of our social, language and emotional processes are learned by listening to our mom’s voice,” said lead author Daniel Abrams, PhD, instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “But surprisingly little is known about how the brain organizes itself around this very important sound source. We didn’t realize that a mother’s voice would have such quick access to so many different brain systems.”

Decades of research have shown that children prefer their mother’s voices: In one classic study, 1-day-old babies sucked harder on a pacifier when they heard the sound of their mom’s voice, as opposed to the voices of other women. However, the mechanism behind this preference had never been defined.

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“Nobody had really looked at the brain circuits that might be engaged,” senior author Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said. “We wanted to know: Is it just auditory and voice-selective areas that respond differently, or is it more broad in terms of engagement, emotional reactivity and detection of salient stimuli?” 

The study examined 24 children ages 7 to 12. All had IQs of at least 80, none had any developmental disorders, and all were being raised by their biological mothers. Parents answered a standard questionnaire about their child’s ability to interact and relate with others. And before the brain scans, each child’s mother was recorded saying three nonsense words.

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“In this age range, where most children have good language skills, we didn’t want to use words that had meaning because that would have engaged a whole different set of circuitry in the brain,” said Menon, who is the Rachael L. and Walter F. Nichols, MD, Professor.


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