Maternal stress predicts neural responses during auditory statistical learning in 26-month-old children: An event-related potential study

Cognition. 2021 Aug:213:104600. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2021.104600. Epub 2021 Jan 26.


Exposure to high levels of early life stress have been associated with long-term difficulties in learning, behavior, and health, with particular impact evident in the language domain. While some have proposed that the increased stress of living in a low-income household mediates observed associations between socioeconomic status (SES) and child outcomes, considerable individual differences have been observed. The extent to which specific variables associated with socioeconomic status - in particular exposure to stressful life events - influence the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying language acquisition are not well understood. Auditory statistical learning, or the ability to segment a continuous auditory stream based on its statistical properties, develops during early infancy and is one mechanism thought to underlie language learning. The present study used an event-related potential (ERP) paradigm to test whether maternal stress, adjusting for socioeconomic variables (e.g., family income, maternal education) was associated with neurocognitive processes underlying statistical learning in a sample of 26-month-old children (n = 23) from predominantly low- to middle-income backgrounds. Event-related potentials were recorded while children listened to a continuous stream of tri-tone "words" in which tone elements varied in transitional probability. "Tone-words" were presented in random order, such that Tone 1 always predicted Tones 2 and 3 (transitional probability for Tone 3 = 1.0), but Tone 1 appeared randomly. A larger P2 amplitude was observed in response to Tone 3 compared to Tone 1, demonstrating that children implicitly tracked differences in transitional probabilities during passive listening. Maternal reports of stress at 26 months, adjusting for SES, were negatively associated with difference in P2 amplitude between Tones 1 and 3. These findings suggest that maternal stress, within a low-SES context, is associated with the manner in which children process statistical properties of auditory input.

Keywords: Auditory statistical learning; Event-related potential (ERP); Language; Maternal stress; Socioeconomic status.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Auditory Perception*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials*
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Learning