Brain Imaging Centre, Research Centre for Natural Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Magyar Tudósok körútja 2., H-1117, Budapest, Hungary; Department of Cognitive Sciences, Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Egry József utca 1., H-1111, Budapest, Hungary; University of Pannonia, Institute of Hungarian and Applied Linguistics, Vár utca 39., H-8200, Veszprém, Hungary. Electronic address: [Email]
BACKGROUND : Preterm birth is associated with various risks, including delayed or atypical language development. The prenatal start of prosodic tuning may affect the processing of word stress, an important suprasegmental feature of spoken utterances. OBJECTIVE : Our study focused on the expected contribution of intra-uterine experience to word stress processing. We aimed to demonstrate the hypothesized effect of intra-uterine sound exposition on stress sensitivity. METHODS : We recorded ERP responses of 34 preterm infants elicited by bisyllabic pseudo-words in two oddball conditions by switching the stress pattern (legal vs. illegal) and role (standard vs. deviant). RESULTS : The mismatch responses found were synchronized to each syllable of the illegally stressed stimuli with no difference between pre- and full-term infants. However, the clear role of the preterm status was demonstrated by the exaggerated processing of the native stress information. The impact of intra-uterine exposure to prosody was confirmed by our finding that moderate-late preterm infants outperformed the very preterm ones. CONCLUSIONS : Intra-uterine exposition to prosodic features appears to contribute to the emergence of stable long-term stress representation. When this tuning is missing it is considered a risk for the language acquisition process.