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Home literacy environment mediates the relationship between socioeconomic status and white matter structure in infants

By Ted K Turesky, Joseph Sanfilippo, Jennifer Zuk, Banu Ahtam, Borjan Gagoski, Ally Lee, Kathryn Garrisi, Jade Dunstan, Clarisa Carruthers, Jolijn Vanderauwera, Xi Yu, Nadine Gaab

Posted 17 Nov 2021
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.11.13.468500

The home literacy environment (HLE) in infancy has been associated with subsequent pre-literacy skill development and HLE at pre-school age has been shown to correlate with white matter organization in tracts that subserve pre-reading and reading skills. Furthermore, childhood socioeconomic status (SES) has been linked with both HLE and white matter organization. It is also important to understand whether the relationships between environmental factors such as HLE and SES and white matter organization can be detected as early as infancy, as this period is characterized by rapid brain development that may make white matter pathways particularly susceptible to these early experiences. Here, we hypothesized (1) an association between HLE and white matter organization in pre-reading and reading-related tracts in infants, and (2) that this association mediates a link between SES and white matter organization. To test these hypotheses, infants (mean age: 9.2 +/- 2.5 months, N = 18) underwent diffusion-weighted imaging MRI during natural sleep. Fractional anisotropy (FA) was estimated from the left superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF) and left arcuate fasciculus using the automated fiber-tract quantification method. HLE was measured with the Reading subscale of the StimQ and SES was measured with years of maternal education. Self-reported maternal reading ability was also quantified and applied to all statistical models to control for confounding genetic effects. The Reading subscale of the StimQ positively related to FA in left SLF and mediated the association between maternal education and FA in the left SLF. Taken together, these findings underscore the importance of considering HLE from the start of life and may inform novel prevention and intervention strategies targeted at low-SES families to support developing infants during a period of heightened brain plasticity.

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