Development of the human auditory brainstem is thought to be primarily complete by the age of ~2 years, such that subsequent sensory plasticity is confined primarily to the cortex. However, recent findings have revealed experience-dependent developmental plasticity in the mammalian auditory brainstem in an animal model. It is not known whether the human system demonstrates similar changes and whether experience with sounds composed of acoustic elements relevant to speech may alter brainstem response characteristics. We
recorded brainstem responses evoked by both click and speech syllables in children between the ages of 3 and 12 years. Here, we report a neural response discrepancy in brainstem encoding of these two sounds, observed in 3- to 4-year-old children but not in school-age children. Whereas all children exhibited identical neural activity to a click, 3- to 4-year-old children displayed delayed and less synchronous onset and sustained neural response activity when elicited by speech compared with 5- to 12-year-olds. These results suggest that the human auditory system exhibits developmental plasticity, in both frequency and time domains, for sounds that are composed of acoustic elements relevant to speech. The findings are interpreted within the contexts of stimulus-related differences and experience-dependent plasticity.