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The teen brain tunes in less to Mom’s voice, more to unfamiliar voices, study finds

Around age 13, kids’ brains shift from focusing on their mothers’ voices to favor new voices, part of the biological signal driving teens to separate from their parents, a Stanford Medicine study has found.

- By Erin Digitale

Brain scans show that starting around age 13, kids no longer find their mothers' voices uniquely rewarding, researchers have found.
New Africa/Shutterstock.com

When your teenagers don’t seem to hear you, it’s not simply that they don’t want to clean their room or finish their homework: Their brains aren’t registering your voice the way they did in pre-teenage years.

Around age 13, kids’ brains no longer find their moms’ voices uniquely rewarding, and they tune into unfamiliar voices more, a new study from the Stanford School of Medicine has found.

The research, which was published April 28 in the Journal of Neuroscience, used functional MRI brain scans to give the first detailed neurobiological explanation for how teens begin to separate from their parents.

“Just as an infant knows to tune into her mother’s voice, an adolescent knows to tune into novel voices,” said lead study author Daniel Abrams, PhD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “As a teen, you don’t know you’re doing this. You’re just being you: You’ve got your friends and new companions and you want to spend time with them. Your mind is increasingly sensitive to and attracted to these unfamiliar voices.”

(Abrams explains how children's attention to voices evolves in this video.)

In some ways, teens’ brains are more receptive to all voices — including their mothers’ — than the brains of children under 12, the researchers discovered, a finding that lines up with teenagers’ increased interest in many types of social signals.

However, in teenage brains, the reward circuits and the brain centers that prioritize important stimuli are more activated by unfamiliar voices than by those of their mothers. The brain’s shift toward new voices is an aspect of healthy maturation, the researchers said.

“A child becomes independent at some point, and that has to be precipitated by an underlying biological signal,” said the study’s senior author, Vinod Menon, PhD, the Rachael L. and Walter F. Nichols, MD, Professor and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “That’s what we’ve uncovered: This is a signal that helps teens engage with the world and form connections which allow them to be socially adept outside their families.”

Age-related shift toward new voices

The Stanford team previously found that, in the brains of children 12 and under, hearing Mom’s voice triggers an explosion of unique responses: A study published in 2016 showed that kids can identify their moms’ voices with extremely high accuracy and that the special sound of Mom cues not just the brain’s auditory-processing areas, but also many areas not triggered by unfamiliar voices, including reward centers, emotion-processing regions, visual processing centers and brain networks that decide which incoming information is salient.

Vinod Menon

“The mother’s voice is the sound source that teaches young kids all about the social-emotional world and language development,” said Percy Mistry, PhD, co-lead author and a research scholar in psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “Fetuses in utero can recognize their mother’s voice before they’re born, yet with adolescents — even though they’ve spent even more time with this sound source than babies have — their brains are tuning away from it in favor of voices they’ve never even heard.”

The new study built on the previous study, adding data from teenagers 13 to 16.5 years of age. All participants had an IQ of at least 80 and were being raised by their biological mothers. They did not have any neurological, psychiatric or learning disorders.

The researchers recorded the teens’ mothers saying three nonsense words, which lasted just under a second. Using nonsense words ensured that the participants would not respond to the words’ meaning or emotional content. Two women unfamiliar with the study subjects were recorded saying the same nonsense words. Each teenage participant listened to several repetitions of the nonsense-word recordings by their own mother and the unfamiliar women, presented in random order, and identified when they heard their mom. Just like younger children, teens correctly identified their mothers’ voices more than 97% of the time.

The teens were then placed in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner, where they listened again to the voice recordings. They also listened to brief recordings of household sounds, such as a dishwasher running, to allow the researchers to see how the brain responds to voices versus other non-social sounds.

More activation overall

The researchers found that among teenagers, all voices elicited greater activation in several brain regions compared with younger children: the voice-selective superior temporal sulcus, an auditory processing area; salience processing regions that filter which information is important; and the posterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in aspects of autobiographical and social memory. Brain responses to voices increased with teens’ age — in fact, the relationship was so strong researchers could use the voice-response information in teens’ brain scans to predict how old they were.

What distinguished teenagers from younger children was that unfamiliar voices elicited greater activity than Mom’s voice in the nucleus accumbens of the reward-processing system and in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region involved in assigning value to social information. The switch toward unfamiliar voices happened in these brain centers between 13 and 14 years of age, and there was no difference between boys and girls.

The research will aid in studying what happens in the brains of adolescents with autism and other conditions that affect how they tune into voices and other social stimuli. Younger kids with autism don’t have as strong a brain response to their mothers’ voices as typically developing children, the Stanford team has found.

Voices are really what connect us.

The team is excited to have uncovered the foundations of teens’ ability to tune into new people, an important part of humans’ overall engagement with voices. The fact that the brain is so attuned to voices makes intuitive sense — just ask anyone who has ever felt an emotional jolt at hearing a friend’s or family member’s voice after a long time, the researchers said.

“The voices in our environment are this incredibly rewarding sound source that allow us to feel connected, included, part of a community and part of a family,” Abrams said. “Voices are really what connect us.”

Children’s social interactions undergo a major transformation during adolescence. “Our findings demonstrate that this process is rooted in neurobiological changes,” Menon said. “When teens appear to be rebelling by not listening to their parents, it is because they are wired to pay more attention to voices outside their home.”

The paper’s other Stanford authors are former research assistant Amanda Baker and former research scientist Aarthi Padmanabhan, PhD.

Study authors are members of the Stanford Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute, Stanford Bio-X, and the Stanford Maternal and Child Health Research Institute.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health (grants K01 MH102428, DC011095, MH084164, DC017950 and DC017950-S1), the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, the Singer Foundation, and the Simons Foundation/SFARI.

Stanford’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences also supported the work.

Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care, and Stanford Children's Health. For more information, please visit the Office of Communications website at http://mednews.stanford.edu.

2022 ISSUE 1

Understanding the world within us

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