Cortical Plasticity in 4-Month-Old Infants: Specific Effects of Experience with Musical Timbres
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Animal models suggest that the brain is particularly neuroplastic early in development, but previous studies have not systematically controlled the auditory environment in human infants and observed the effects on auditory cortical representations. We exposed 4-month-old infants to melodies in either guitar or marimba timbre (infants were randomly assigned to exposure group) for a total of ~160 min over the course of a week, after which we measured electroencephalogram (EEG) responses to guitar and marimba tones at pitches not previously heard during the exposure phase. A frontally negative response with a topography consistent with generation in auditory areas, peaking around 450 ms, was significantly larger for guitar than marimba tones in the guitar-exposed group but significantly larger for marimba than guitar tones in the marimba-exposed group. This indicates that experience with tones in a particular timbre affects representations for that timbre, and that this effect generalizes to tones not previously experienced during exposure. Furthermore, mismatch responses to occasional small 3% changes in pitch were larger for tones in guitar than marimba timbre only for infants exposed to guitar tones. Together these results indicate that a relatively small amount of passive exposure to a particular timbre in infancy enhances representations of that timbre and leads to more precise pitch processing for that timbre.
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