Orienting to salient events in the environment is a first step in the development of attention in young infants. Electrophysiological studies have indicated that in newborns and young infants, sounds with widely distributed spectral energy, such as noise and various environmental sounds, as well as sounds widely deviating from their context elicit an event related potential (ERP) similar to the adult P3a response. We discuss how the maturation of event-related potentials parallels the process of the development of passive auditory attention during the first year of life. Behavioural studies have indicated that the neonatal orientation to high energy stimuli gradually changes to attending to genuine novelty and other significant events by approximately 9 months of age. In accordance with these changes, in newborns, the ERP response to large acoustic deviance is dramatically larger than that to small and moderate deviations. This ERP difference, however, rapidly decreases within first months of life and the differentiation of the ERP response to genuine novelty from that to spectrally rich but repeatedly presented sounds commences during the same period. The relative decrease of the response amplitudes elicited by high energy stimuli may reflect development of an inhibitory brain network suppressing the processing of uninformative stimuli. Based on data obtained from healthy full term and pre term infants as well as from infants at risk for various developmental problems, we suggest that the electrophysiological indices of the processing of acoustic and contextual deviance may be indicative of the functioning of auditory attention, a crucial prerequisite of learning and language development
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