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Abstract

A pivotal period in the development of language occurs in the second year of life, when language comprehension undergoes rapid acceleration. However, the brain bases of these advances remain speculative as there is currently no functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data from healthy, typically developing toddlers at this age. We investigated the neural basis of speech comprehension in this critical age period by measuring fMRI activity during passive speech comprehension in 10 toddlers (mean ± SD; 21 ± 4 mo) and 10 3-year-old children (39 ± 3 mo) during natural sleep. During sleep, the children were presented passages of forward and backward speech in 20-second blocks separated by 20-second periods of no sound presentation. Toddlers produced significantly greater activation in frontal, occipital, and cerebellar regions than 3-year-old children in response to forward speech. Our results suggest that rapid language acquisition during the second year of life may require the utilization of frontal, cerebellar, and occipital regions in addition to classical superior temporal language areas. These findings are consistent with the interactive specialization hypothesis, which proposes that cognitive abilities develop from the interaction of brain regions that include and extend beyond those used in the adult brain.