Voices transmit social signals through speech and/or prosody. Emotional prosody conveys key information about the emotional state of a speaker and is thus a crucial cue that one has to detect in order to develop efficient social communication. Previous studies in adults reported different brain responses to emotional than to neutral prosodic deviancy. The aim of this study was to characterize such specific emotional deviancy effects in school-age children. The mismatch negativity (MMN) and P3a evoked potentials, reflecting automatic change detection and automatic attention orienting, respectively, were obtained for neutral and emotional angry deviants in both school-age children (n = 26) and adults (n = 14). Shorter latencies were found for emotional than for neutral preattentional responses in both groups. However, whereas this effect was observed on the MMN in adults, it appeared in an early discriminative negativity preceding the MMN in children. A smaller P3a amplitude was observed for the emotional than for the neutral deviants at all ages. Overall, the brain responses involved in specific emotional change processing are already present during childhood, but responses have not yet reached an adult pattern. We suggest that these processing differences might contribute to the known improvement of emotional prosody perception between childhood and adulthood.
Keywords: Change detection; Children; Emotion; Mismatch negativity (MMN); P3a; Prosody.