Stefanie Höhl

Dept. of Developmental and Educational Psychology, Faculty of Psychology, University of Vienna

1. Neural entrainment to naturalistic auditory rhythms in infants and its relation to the early language development

Brain activity is characterized by rhythmic oscillations indicating dynamic fluctuations in the excitability of neurons. In human adults, entrainment of these neuronal oscillations to the rhythm of speech has been related to enhanced signal processing and effective communication. It is currently unclear whether neuronal entrainment already plays a role in early language acquisition and which types of stimuli allow for optimized auditory processing in infants. In this longitudinal study, a sample of infants will be tested at three time points (at 6, 12 and 24 months) longitudinally. At each time point, we will measure infants’ electroencephalogram (EEG) while they are listening to a range of naturalistic auditory stimuli, in particular infant-directed and adult-directed speech and singing. In addition, at 24 months, we will assess children’s language abilities with standardized measures. Our hypotheses are that 1) infants’ neuronal oscillations will preferentially align with infant-directed speech rhythms, which are closer to the peak frequencies of their endogenous neuronal oscillations than adult-directed speech, and 2) infants with higher levels of entrainment to speech and singing at 6 and 12 months should have a language processing advantage resulting in increased language skills at 24 months. The PhD candidate will acquire state-of-the-art expertise in EEG data acquisition and analysis in addition to developmental diagnostics of early communication skills. This research has important implications for early human language acquisition and links to Angela Stoeger’s work on vocal learning and rhythm in different species.