Language development and the capacity for communication in infants are predominantly supported by their mothers, beginning when infants are still in utero. Although a mother's speech should thus have a significant impact on her neonate's brain, neurocognitive evidence for this hypothesis remains elusive. The present study examined 37 neonates using near-infrared spectroscopy and observed the interactions between multiple cortical regions while neonates heard speech spoken by their mothers or by strangers. We analyzed the functional connectivity between regions whose response-activation patterns differed between the two types of speakers. We found that when hearing their mothers’ speech, functional connectivity was enhanced in both the neonatal left and right frontotemporal networks. On the left it was enhanced between the inferior/middle frontal gyrus and the temporal cortex, while on the right it was enhanced between the frontal pole and temporal cortex. In particular, the frontal pole was more strongly connected to the left supramarginal area when hearing speech from mothers. These enhanced frontotemporal networks connect areas that are associated with language (left) and voice processing (right) at later stages of development. We suggest that these roles are initially fostered by maternal speech.
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