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Stanford/Packard language-development study needs toddlers

- By Erin Digitale

Heidi Feldman

Heidi Feldman

Scientists at the Stanford University and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital are recruiting parents and toddlers to study the effect of premature birth on language development.

Children born prematurely tend to develop language skills more slowly than their peers. Deficits in language use that emerge early in life and continue later in reading may persist into the teen years and beyond.

“There’s a cumulative effect of early learning,” said Heidi Feldman, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine. “The cascade flows in a healthy direction when things go well early on.” Feldman, who is also a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Packard Children’s Hospital, is co-leading the research with Anne Fernald, PhD, associate professor of psychology.

The researchers plan to compare language development from age 18 months to 4 years in preterm and full-term children, hoping to find early markers that identify which children in both groups are at greatest risk for long-term language problems. They also want to understand why these delays occur more frequently in children born prematurely. In future studies, they plan to develop ways to intervene early to optimize the development of children born preterm.

The scientists are recruiting toddlers aged 18-24 months whose first language is either English or Spanish and their parents. They will test both preterm toddlers born before 32 weeks of pregnancy and full-term toddlers born after at least 37 weeks of pregnancy. Parent-child pairs will participate in each study session.

More information is available about the study by calling (650)723-1257 or emailing Laura Barde, PhD, study coordinator, at lbarde@stanford.edu.

The study will evaluate language comprehension in each child volunteer at 18, 24, 30 and 36 months and at 4 years of age. Observations will take place at the Center for Infant Studies, in the Department of Psychology on the main Stanford campus, or at a satellite laboratory in Sunnyvale, where Fernald and her research team have developed powerful new measures for assessing language comprehension by very young children. Children look at pictures of familiar objects on a monitor while listening to speech naming one of the pictures.  “By tracking children’s eye movements in response to speech, we can measure with precision their efficiency in interpreting spoken language in real time, a skill that is crucial in developing linguistic proficiency,” said Fernald.

“What’s really exciting is that the methodology doesn’t require the child to talk,” Feldman said. “If the child understands spoken language, we can include him or her in the study.”

The study represents a cross-campus melding of two disciplines to produce unusual bench-to-bedside science, Feldman added. “When people think about translational research they assume that the basic research component is genetic or molecular, and that research moves from a wet lab to a clinical population,” she said. “Our study is a very interesting example of translational research in which the basic processes are psychological in nature, and can be used for gaining new understanding of a specific clinical population."

Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care (formerly Stanford Hospital & Clinics), and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. For more information, please visit the Office of Communication & Public Affairs site at http://mednews.stanford.edu.

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