A mother's voice –– the link to understanding brain activity in teenagers and children with autism

Posted May 23

A mother's soothing voice while singing a lullaby to her child may do more than help a child feel calm and sleepy. Research shows it may be a link toward understanding brain activity in teenagers and children with autism.

According to a study from the Stanford University School of Medicine, children who are more responsive to their mothers' voices have stronger connections between regions of the brain and better communication skills.

"Voice is one of the most important social communication cues," said Dr. Vinod Menon, a senior author of the research. "It's exciting to see that the echo of one's mother's voice lives on in so many brain systems."

According to U.S. News, the study involved children from ages 7 to 12 who were raised by their biological mother. The mothers of the children participants and two strangers whose children were not involved in the study were recorded saying three nonsense words. While the children listened to the recordings of both their mothers and the strangers, their brains were scanned using MRIs.

The researchers found the children could identify which voice was their mother's with 97 percent accuracy. The children's brain activity was more stimulated by their mothers than the strangers.

The Tech Times' report on the study explained that the amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotions — becomes engaged in reaction to the mother's voice. The region of the brain pertinent to reward processing, social functions, detection of personal relevance and facial recognition also becomes stimulated.

"Many of our social, language and emotional processes are learned by listening to our mom's voice," said Daniel Abrams, a study author and psychiatry and behavioral sciences instructor at Stanford. "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."

A separate study by European and Japanese researchers published last year also found sound to be an important aspect in influencing our emotions. The researchers created a digital audio platform for participants to listen to while reading a short story aloud. The audio invoked happiness, sadness or fear. The results showed the audio transformations were able to manipulate the participants to the intended emotions through a detectable change in the pitch of their voices. The participants were unaware they were being manipulated.

The Stanford researchers are planning to carry out similar studies with autistic children and teenagers, to see if the effect of the mother's voice changes as people mature into adulthood, as reported by the Daily Mail.

According to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, "A new study now suggests that there is a link between language development in children with ASD and the activity of certain brain regions."

"This is an important new template for investigating social communication deficits in children with disorders such as autism," Menon said.

Megan McNulty is an intern for the Deseret News National Edition. Contact her at


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