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BACKGROUND: Are developmental language disorders caused by poor auditory discrimination? This is a popular theory, but behavioural evidence has been inconclusive. Here we studied children with specific language impairment, measuring the brain's electrophysiological response to sounds in a passive paradigm. We focused on the T-complex, an event-related peak that has different origins and developmental course from the well-known vertex response. METHODS: We analysed auditory event-related potentials to tones and syllables from 16 children and 16 adolescents with specific language impairment who were compared with 32 typically-developing controls, matched for gender, IQ and age. RESULTS: We replicated prior findings of significant reduction in Ta amplitude for both children and adolescents with specific language impairment, which was particularly marked for syllables. The topography of the T-complex to syllables indicated a less focal response in those with language impairments. To distinguish causal models, we considered correlations between size of the Ta response and measures of language and literacy in parents as well as children. The best-fitting model was one in which auditory deficit was a consequence rather than a cause of difficulties in phonological processing. CONCLUSIONS: The T-complex to syllables has abnormal size and topography in children with specific language impairment, but this is more likely to be a consequence rather than a cause of difficulties in phonological processing.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS One

Publication Date





Adolescent, Auditory Diseases, Central, Behavior, Child, Endophenotypes, Evoked Potentials, Auditory, Female, Humans, Language Development Disorders, Male, Models, Biological