1. Neuroscientists identify source of early brain activity

    November 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Maryland press release:

    Some expectant parents play classical music for their unborn babies, hoping to boost their children’s cognitive capacity later in life. While some research supported a link between prenatal sound exposure and improved brain function, scientists had not identified any structures responsible for this link in the developing brain.

    A new study led by University of Maryland neuroscientists is the first to identify a mechanism that could explain such an early link between sound input and cognitive function, often called the “Mozart effect.” Working with an animal model, the researchers found that a type of cell present in the brain’s primary processing area during early development, long thought to form structural scaffolding with no role in transmitting sensory information, may conduct such signals after all.

    The results, which could have implications for the early diagnosis of autism and other cognitive deficits, were published in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on November 6, 2017.

    “Previous research documented brain activity in response to sound during early developmental phases, but it was hard to determine where in the brain these signals were coming from,” said Patrick Kanold, a professor of biology at UMD and the senior author of the research paper. “Our study is the first to measure these signals in an important cell type in the brain, providing important new insights into early sensory development in mammals.”

    Working with young ferrets, Kanold and his team directly observed sound-induced nerve impulses in subplate neurons for the first time. During development, subplate neurons are among the first neurons to form in the cerebral cortex — the outer part of the mammalian brain that controls perception, memory and, in humans, higher functions such as language and abstract reasoning. Subplate neurons help guide the formation of neural circuits, in the same way that a temporary scaffolding helps a construction crew build walls and install windows on a new building.

    Much like construction scaffolding, the role of subplate neurons is thought to be temporary. Once the brain’s permanent neural circuits form, most of the subplate neurons die off and disappear. According to Kanold, researchers assumed that subplate neurons had no role in transmitting sensory information, given their temporary structural role.

    Conventional wisdom suggested that mammalian brains transmit their first sensory signals in response to sound after the thalamus fully connects to the cerebral cortex. In many mammals used for research, the connection of the thalamus and the cortex also coincides with the opening of the ear canals, which allows sounds to activate the inner ear. This coincident timing provided further support for the traditional model of when sound processing begins in the brain.

    However, researchers had struggled to reconcile this conventional model with observations of sound-induced brain activity much earlier in the developmental process. Until his group directly measured the response of subplate neurons to sound, Kanold said, the phenomenon had largely been overlooked.

    “Our work is the first to suggest that subplate neurons do more than bridge the gap between the thalamus and the cortex, forming the structure for future circuits,” Kanold said. “They form a functional scaffolding that actually processes and transmits information before other cortical circuits are activated. It is likely that subplate neurons help determine the early functional organization of the cortex in addition to structural organization.”

    By identifying a source of early sensory nerve signals, the current study could lead to new ways to diagnose autism and other cognitive deficits that emerge early in development. Early diagnosis is an important first step toward early intervention and treatment, Kanold noted.

    “Now that we know subplate neurons are transmitting sensory input, we can begin to study their functional role in development in more detail,” Kanold said. “What is the role of sensory experience at this early stage? How might defects in subplate neurons correlate with cognitive deficits and conditions like autism? There are so many new possibilities for future research.”

    Kanold’s findings are already drawing interest from researchers who study sensory development in humans. Rhodri Cusack, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin, in Ireland, noted that the results could have implications for the care of premature infants.

    “This paper shows that our sensory systems are shaped by the environment from a very early age,” Cusack said. “In human infants, this includes the third trimester, when many preterm infants spend time in a neonatal intensive care unit. The findings are a call to action to identify enriching environments that can optimize sensory development in this vulnerable population.”


  2. Study suggests babies can use context to look for things

    November 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Brown University press release:

    Just six months into the world, babies already have the capacity to learn, remember and use contextual cues in a scene to guide their search for objects of interest, such as faces, a new Brown University study shows.

    “It was pretty surprising to find that 6-month-olds were capable of this memory-guided attention,” said lead author Kristen Tummeltshammer, a postdoctoral scholar at Brown. “We didn’t expect them to be so successful so young.”

    In the experiment described in Developmental Science, babies showed steady improvement in finding faces in repeated scenes, but didn’t get any quicker or more accurate in finding faces in new scenes. Senior author Dima Amso, an associate professor in Brown’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, said the finding that infants can recognize and exploit patterns of context provides important new insights into typical and possibly atypical brain development.

    “What that means is that they are efficient in using the structure in their environment to maximize attentional resources on the one hand and to reduce uncertainty and distraction on the other,” Amso said. “A critical question in our lab has been whether infants at risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, especially autism spectrum disorders, have differences in the way that they process visual information, and whether this would impact future learning and attention. These data lay the developmental groundwork for asking whether there are differences in using previously learned visual information to guide future learning and attention across various neurodevelopmental populations.”

    Find the face

    To make the findings, Tummeltshammer and Amso invited 46 healthy, full-term infants, either 6 or 10 months old, to their lab to play a little game of finding faces. Seated on a parent’s lap, the babies simply had to watch a screen as they were presented with a series of arrangements of four colored shapes. In each arrangement, the shapes would turn around with one revealing a face. An eye-tracking system would measure where the baby looked.

    Eventually the babies would always look at the face, especially because after two seconds, the face would become animate and say words like “peekaboo.” In all, each baby saw 48 arrangements over eight minutes, with little breaks to watch clips of Elmo from “Sesame Street.” That, Tummeltshammer said, was to help keep them (and maybe their parents) engaged and happy.

    The trick of the experiment is that while half the time the shape arrangements were randomly scrambled and the face could be revealed anywhere, the other half of the time the same arrangements were repeated, meaning a baby could learn from that context to predict where to look for the face. In this way, the babies beheld faces both in novel and repeated contexts. If babies could notice the repeated context pattern, remember it and put it to use, they should be quicker and more accurate in finding the face when it came up in that kind of scene again.

    By several measures reported in the study, the babies demonstrated that capacity clearly. For example, as they saw more scenes, babies consistently reduced the amount of time it took to find the face in repeated-context scenes, but not in new-context scenes. Also they became better at ignoring non-face shapes in repeated-context scenes as they went along, but didn’t show that same improvement in new-context scenes.

    Babies even learned to anticipate where the faces would be on the screen based on their experiences in the experiment.

    Tummeltshammer said there was little difference between the 6-month-olds and the 10-month-olds, suggesting that the skill is already developed at the younger age.

    In new research, Tummeltshammer said, she and Amso plan to experiment with more realistic scenes. After all, babies rarely need to look for faces among cleanly defined abstract shapes. A more real-world challenge for a baby, for instance, might be finding a parent’s familiar and comforting face across a holiday dinner table.

    But even from this simpler experimental setting, the ability is clearly established.

    “We think of babies as being quite reactive in how they spread their attention,” Tummeltshammer said. “This helps us recognize that they are actually quite proactive. They are able to use recent memory and to extract what’s common in an environment as a shortcut to be able to locate things quickly.”

    A James S. McDonnell Scholar Award and the National Institutes of Health (1-F32-MH108278-01) funded the research.


  3. Study suggests babies are able to estimate how likely one event is compared to another

    November 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences press release:

    Our whole life we have to make decisions and weigh up probabilities of different events. By learning to estimate which event is more likely to happen, we become better at analysing risks and benefits to guide our actions. But when do we start to gain a sense of stochasticity? Are babies even able to determine likelihood?

    Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig and the University of Uppsala, Sweden, have now discovered that even six-month-old babies can estimate probabilities. The babies already succeed in determining which colour makes up the majority of the balls and therefore which one is more likely to be drawn. “Six months seems to be the minimum age at which infants start to deal with probability information. One previous study showed that babies at just four months old were not able to perform this task and therefore seemed to not yet be sensitive to this information,” says Ezgi Kayhan, neuroscientist at MPI CBS and leader of the underlying study. “We suppose that from early on in life, our brains represent statistics of the environment. Within the first six months of life, babies are able to extract information about which events follow on from each other, or how likely one event is compared to another.”

    The neuroscientists investigated these relations by presenting animated film clips to 75 babies aged six, twelve and 18 months. These short movies featured a machine filled with balls, most were blue, some yellow, which in a second sequence ejected lots of the mainly available blue balls into one basket, and into another container mainly yellow balls. In this context it was 625 times less likely that the machine chose yellow balls instead of blue. Therefore, the basket being filled with mainly yellow balls was a very unlikely event.

    While the babies watched the movies the scientists observed them using the so-called eyetracking method to see which of the two baskets they looked at for longer — the likely or the unlikely option. “We noticed that the infants stared longer at the unlikely option independently from the tested age group to which they belonged — presumably because they were surprised that it was just made up of the rare yellow balls and that it was therefore a very improbable event,” explains the Turkish-born scientist. To make sure that the babies were not just more attracted by the colour yellow in some of the trials, the researchers also used green and red balls.

    “In fact, several studies have already investigated whether infants can assess probabilities, but we’ve been the first to research whether the difficulty level of the likelihood information makes a difference,” Kayhan states. Accordingly, Kayhan and her team wanted to test the limits of these estimations: Are babies still sensitive to this information when the likely and unlikely sample are difficult to distinguish?

    Indeed, the babies’ looking preferences changed depending on the ratio of blue and yellow balls. When it was only nine times more likely that the machine would pick the blue ball instead of a yellow one, the babies preferred to look at the likely blue-dominated sample for longer. “This outcome was especially surprising. One explanation could be that with decreasing ratio between the two colours, the complexity of the information increased and therefore infants preferred to focus their attention on the subset that looked more familiar. From previous studies it is known that babies prefer to look at familiar objects if they still need to encode information. In the difficult case, the information was more complex, thus the processing load was heavier within this time period,” Kayhan adds. Regardless of a possible explanation the study made clear that the infants’ ability to estimate probabilities strongly depends on how difficult it is to differentiate between the likely and the unlikely sample.


  4. Anxious moms may give clues about how anxiety develops

    October 8, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    Moms may be notorious worriers, but babies of anxious mothers may also spend more time focusing on threats in their environment, according to a team of researchers.

    In a study, researchers used eye-tracking technology to measure how long babies spent looking at happy, neutral and angry faces. They found that the babies with anxious moms had a harder time looking away from an angry face — which they could view as a threat — than babies whose moms were not anxious.

    Koraly Pérez-Edgar, professor of psychology at Penn State, said the findings — recently published in the journal Emotion — could help give clues about which children are at risk for developing anxiety later in life.

    “Once we learn more about the pathways to anxiety, we can better predict who’s at risk and hopefully help prevent them from needing treatment later on,” Pérez-Edgar said. “Treatment is difficult for the child and parent, it’s expensive and it doesn’t always work. If we can prevent anxiety from developing, that’s a whole lot better. Let’s find out which kids are at the highest risk and intervene.”

    Previous research has found that focusing too much on threat could potentially increase anxiety, and some forms of therapy focus on turning attention away from threat as a way to lower anxiety.

    “Paying too much attention to threat, even as infants, could possibly set up this cycle. The more you fixate on threat, the more opportunity you have to see the world as a threatening place, which could help lead to more anxiety,” Pérez-Edgar said. “Additionally, we think that risk factors in biology and potentially mom’s anxiety could also make that more likely.”

    To examine the relationship between a mother’s anxiety and her baby’s attention to threat, a research team led by Pérez-Edgar; Kristin Buss, professor of psychology at Penn State; and Vanessa Lobue, assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University, recruited 98 babies between the ages of 4 and 24 months.

    The babies’ mothers answered questions about their anxiety levels, and the babies were placed in front of a screen that was equipped with an eye tracker — a strip that ran along the bottom of the monitor and followed the movement of the babies’ irises using infrared.

    As each baby focused on the screen, their gaze was measured while happy, neutral and angry faces appeared one at a time. Once the baby was focused on a face, a second image was flashed in their peripheral vision to distract them.

    “By the time you’re a few months old, a reflex develops where you’ll automatically turn and look if something pops up in your peripheral vision,” Pérez-Edgar said. “This became a conflict for the babies, because they were focused on the face but then had this reflex to turn and look.”

    The researchers found that the more anxious a baby’s mother was, the more time her baby spent looking at the angry faces before turning to look at the image in their peripheral vision. This suggests that the babies with anxious moms had a harder time disengaging from a potential threat in their environment.

    Additionally, the researchers found that the age of the baby did not matter. The babies with anxious moms spent a longer time looking at the angry face whether they were four or 24 months old, suggesting a potential genetic element.

    “It doesn’t seem like the babies are learning to pay more attention to threat from their anxious moms. If that were true, the older babies might have more trouble turning away because they’ve been around their moms longer than the younger babies,” Pérez-Edgar said. “This seems to suggest that there may be a shared genetic or biological component.”

    Pérez-Edgar said the results give powerful clues about where to keep looking to learn more about how anxiety develops in children. In a future study, Pérez-Edgar, Buss and Lobue will take a closer look at how mother’s anxiety affects babies over time, instead of at one instance.


  5. Study suggests babies can learn that hard work pays off

    October 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology press release:

    If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

    A new study from MIT reveals that babies as young as 15 months can learn to follow this advice. The researchers found that babies who watched an adult struggle at two different tasks before succeeding tried harder at their own difficult task, compared to babies who saw an adult succeed effortlessly.

    The study suggests that infants can learn the value of effort after seeing just a couple of examples of adults trying hard, although the researchers have not studied how long the effect lasts. Although the study took place in a laboratory setting, the findings may offer some guidance for parents who hope to instill the value of effort in their children, the researchers say.

    “There’s some pressure on parents to make everything look easy and not get frustrated in front of their children,” says Laura Schulz, a professor of cognitive science at MIT. “There’s nothing you can learn from a laboratory study that directly applies to parenting, but this does at least suggest that it may not be a bad thing to show your children that you are working hard to achieve your goals.”

    Schulz is the senior author of the study, which appears in the Sept. 21 online edition of Science. Julia Leonard, an MIT graduate student, is the first author of the paper, and MIT undergraduate Yuna Lee is also an author.

    Putting in the effort

    Many recent studies have explored the value of hard work. Some have found that children’s persistence, or “grit,” can predict success above and beyond what IQ predicts. Other studies have found that children’s beliefs regarding effort also matter: Those who think putting in effort leads to better outcomes do better in school than those who believe success depends on a fixed level of intelligence.

    Leonard and Schulz were interested in studying how children might learn, at a very early age, how to decide when to try hard and when it’s not worth the effort. Schulz’ previous work has shown that babies can learn causal relationships from just a few examples.

    “We were wondering if they can do similar fast learning from a little bit of data about when effort is really worth it,” Leonard says.

    To do that, they designed an experiment in which 15-month-old babies first watched an adult perform two tasks: removing a toy frog from a container and removing a key chain from a carabiner. Half of the babies saw the adult quickly succeed at the task three times within 30 seconds, while the other half saw her struggle for 30 seconds before succeeding.

    The experimenter then showed the baby a musical toy. This toy had a button that looked like it should turn the toy on but actually did not work; there was also a concealed, functional button on the bottom. Out of the baby’s sight, the researcher turned the toy on, to demonstrate that it played music, then turned it off and gave it to the baby.

    Each baby was given two minutes to play with the toy, and the researchers recorded how many times the babies tried to press the button that seemed like it should turn the toy on. They found that babies who had seen the experimenter struggle before succeeding pressed the button nearly twice as many times overall as those who saw the adult easily succeed. They also pressed it nearly twice as many times before first asking for help or tossing the toy.

    “There wasn’t any difference in how long they played with the toy or in how many times they tossed it to their parent,” Leonard says. “The real difference was in the number of times they pressed the button before they asked for help and in total.”

    The researchers also found that direct interactions with the babies made a difference. When the experimenter said the infants’ names, made eye contact with them, and talked directly to them, the babies tried harder than when the experimenter did not directly engage with the babies.

    “What we found, consistent with many other studies, is that using those pedagogical cues is an amplifier. The effect doesn’t vanish, but it becomes much weaker without those cues,” Schulz says.

    A limited resource

    A key takeaway from the study is that people appear to be able to learn, from an early age, how to make decisions regarding effort allocation, the researchers say.

    “We’re a somewhat puritanical culture, especially here in Boston. We value effort and hard work,” Schulz says. “But really the point of the study is you don’t actually want to put in a lot of effort across the board. Effort is a limited resource. Where do you deploy it, and where do you not?”

    The researchers hope to investigate how long this effect might last after the initial experiment. Another possible avenue of research is whether the effect would be as strong with different kinds of tasks — for example, if it was less clear to the babies what the adult was trying to achieve, or if the babies were given toys that were meant for older children.


  6. Preterm children have more medical sleep problems but fall asleep more independently

    September 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Academy of Sleep Medicine press release:

    A new study suggests that while healthy preterm children have more medical sleep problems than full-term children, they are more likely to fall asleep independently.

    Results show that preterm children displayed more medical sleep problems such as nocturnal movement, restlessness during the night and breathing problems, compared with those born at full term. However, a lower degree of behavioral sleep problems were present in preterm children.

    “Preterm children needed less support to fall asleep and fell asleep more often alone in their own bed compared to those born at full term,” said principal investigator Dr. Barbara Caravale, a researcher in the Department of Developmental and Social Psychology at Sapienza University in Rome, Italy. “However, preterm children showed more frequent sleep difficulties, such as restlessness and breathing problems during the night.”

    Study results are published in the September 15 issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

    The study involved 51 preterm children with normal cognitive, language, and motor development, and 57 full-term children. Their average age was 21 months. Mothers completed a series of questionnaires to assess sleep-related difficulties, sleep habits and child temperament.

    The study found no differences between the two groups of children in bedtime, rise time or sleep duration. However, Caravale noted that the sleep problems reported by the parents of preterms may have resulted in sleep disruption, which could help explain significant differences in attention and emotionality.

    “We observed a link between sleep pattern and temperament in preterm children,” said Caravale. “Our study found that sleep problems were related to increased negative emotionality and decreased attention.”

    According to the authors, these results are consistent with previous studies demonstrating that children born preterm are at risk of attention and learning problems as well as emotional difficulties. For this reason, it is important that pediatricians screen for sleep problems more rigorously in preterm children, especially with respect to sleep-related breathing disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea and sleep-related movement disorders.


  7. Study identifies biomarker for atypical development in infants at risk for developing autism

    September 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Columbia University Medical Center press release:

    New research from the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) identifies a potential biomarker that predicts atypical development in 1- to 2-month-old infants at high versus low familial risk for developing autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The search for neurobiological markers that precede atypical trajectories is important in infants with a high risk for developing autism-related disorders because early recognition allows for early intervention and mitigation of difficulties later in life.

    Using data from National Database for Autism Research (NDAR), lead author Kristina Denisova, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at CUMC and Fellow at the Sackler Institute, studied 71 high and low risk infants who underwent two functional Magnetic Resonance imaging brain scans either at 1-2 months or at 9-10 months: one during a resting period of sleep and a second while native language was presented to the infants. After extracting measures of head movements during the scans, the statistical characteristics of these movements were quantified.

    The study found that infants at high risk for developing ASD have elevated levels of “noise” and increased randomness in their spontaneous head movements during sleep, a pattern possibly suggestive of problems with sleep. In addition, 1- to 2-month-old high risk infants showed more similar signatures while listening to native language and while sleeping while low risk infants showed distinct signatures during the two conditions.

    Further, specific features of head movements during sleep at 1-2 months predicted future flatter (delayed) early learning developmental trajectories in the high-risk babies. The existence of generally atypical learning trajectories in the high risk group was verified in separate data sets from four representative high risk infant-sibling studies comprising a total of 1,445 infants with known ASD outcomes as children. These analyses showed that high risk infants — even those without ASD diagnoses — have significantly lower functioning in childhood relative to low risk infants. The current study reveals a possible way to predict which 1-2 months-old infants will show atypical developmental trajectories as toddlers.

    Dr. Denisova said, “The finding that head movement signatures are responsive to high context stimuli (native language speech) in low but not high risk infants is informative because it suggests that infants whose siblings were diagnosed with ASD are less attuned to evolutionarily important stimuli early in life.” She added that this response pattern may underlie atypical information processing in individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders.

    Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, MD, an autism researcher who was not involved in this study, noted, “This study is a good example of how existing data can be mined for new insights. Additional work is needed to replicate the current findings and understand the underlying mechanisms, but this work suggests new ways to look at movement or motor function in infants at high risk of ASD.”


  8. Child’s home learning environment predicts 5th grade academic skills

    August 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the New York University press release:

    Children whose parents provide them with learning materials like books and toys and engage them in learning activities and meaningful conversations in infancy and toddlerhood are likely to develop early cognitive skills that can cascade into later academic success, finds a new study by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

    The study, published online in the journal Applied Developmental Science, followed a group of children from birth through 5th grade to track the influence of early home learning environments on later cognitive skills and understand the factors that might explain long-term influences.

    “There is growing evidence for the power of early learning environments on later academic success,” said Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, the study’s lead author and a professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt. “Our study confirms that strong home learning environments arm children with foundational skills that are springboards to long-term academic achievement.”

    Research shows that the home learning environment powerfully shapes children’s language and cognitive development. Children’s participation in learning activities, the quality of parent-child interactions, and the availability of learning materials like books and toys are three key features of the home learning environment that support language and pre-academic skills in early childhood.

    In this study, Tamis-LeMonda and her colleagues examined early home learning environments and whether they predict 5th grade academic skills for children of families from ethnically diverse, low-income backgrounds. The researchers studied 2,204 families enrolled in the Early Head Start Research Evaluation Project.

    Children’s learning environments were measured through a series of home visits at 14 months, at 2 and 3 years, and at pre-kindergarten. The researchers looked at literacy activities (including book reading, storytelling, and teaching letters and numbers), learning materials in the home (including books, toys, or games that facilitate expression and learning), and the quality of mothers’ interactions with their children. Examples of high quality interactions included labeling objects in the environment and responding to children’s cues; these sensitive interactions are attentive to children’s needs and cognitively stimulating.

    Learning environments were again assessed in 5th grade based on the number of books in the home and the quality of mothers’ engagement with children, both spontaneous interactions and during a discussion-based task.

    At the pre-kindergarten and 5th grade visits, children were assessed on age-appropriate academic skills. The pre-K visit included measures of vocabulary, letter and word identification, and math problem-solving; the 5th grade visit measured vocabulary, reading, math, and general cognitive abilities.

    The researchers found that early learning environments supported the emergence of pre-academic skills that persisted into early adolescence to predict children’s 5th grade academic skills. Pathways from early learning environments to later academic skill were similar for children from White, Black, Hispanic, English-speaking, and Hispanic Spanish-speaking backgrounds.

    Notably, learning environments were highly stable over the 10-year study, suggesting that the experiences parents provide their infants as early as the first year of life may solidify into patterns of engagement that either continue to support or impede children’s emerging skills.

    The study highlights the importance of early childhood experiences for children’s skill development and long-term academic success, and reinforces the notion that families have a major influence on children’s academic outcomes.

    The researchers note that the findings have implications for policy and practice, including the design of interventions for young children and parents from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    “Improvements to early learning environments, whether it be in the home or through early childhood programs like Early Head Start, can effectively support the development of children exposed to socioeconomic disadvantage,” said Tamis-LeMonda, who also co-directs the Center for Research on Culture, Development and Education at NYU Steinhardt.


  9. Study examines babies’ awareness of their internal signals

    by Ashley

    From the University of Royal Holloway London press release:

    Research published in eLife explains how researchers created a novel new experiment to test how aware babies are of their bodies’ internal signals. The ability to consciously sense signals from your body is called interoception, and some people are more aware of these signals than others. These differences between people can influence a wide range of psychological processes, including how strongly you feel emotions, your decision-making, and mental health.

    “Understanding when we start to be aware of internal signals and how this ability differs among people is really important,” said Professor Manos Tsakiris from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway. “Despite the fact we know that this type of awareness plays a crucial role in cognition in adulthood, we know practically nothing about how its early developmental origins. How and when does this ability develop? And how does this influence who we are as adults?”

    By creating a new test called iBEATS, the researchers could measure this ability for the first time, and found that babies as young as five months old are able to sense their own heartbeats.

    “If you get butterflies before a speech, or feel your heart thumping in your chest when you’re scared, you’re using a skill called interoception.” explains Dr Lara Maister, also at Royal Holloway and the Warburg Institute, at the School of Advanced Study. “We created a new experiment to see if young children were using interoception so we could see when these skills develop.”

    Historically, understanding how babies process internal signals has been difficult; until now, there has been no way to measure interoception in infants. The researchers measured whether infants can discriminate between an animated character moving in synchrony or out of synchrony with their own heartbeat. Infants preferred to watch the character that was moving out of synchrony, suggesting that even at this early age, infants are sensitive to their own interoceptive signals.

    The test also showed that some babies were more sensitive than others. The researchers measured brain activity and infants who had shown a strong preference in the iBEATS task also showed a larger brain signal known as the Heart-Evoked Potential (or HEP) that reflects how our brains process signals from the heart. This special interoceptive brain signal got stronger when babies saw people making negative facial expressions like fear and anger. This suggests that the way babies experience emotions might be closely linked to their bodies’ responses.

    It is now possible that by using this test and following babies as they get older will allow researchers to track how awareness to internal bodily signals changes as we age to support self-awareness, emotional and cognitive development, and how these processes impact on mental health as we grow up.


  10. Sleep makes it possible for babies to associate words with content, and not with noise

    August 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences press release:

    While babies sleep, astonishing processes take place in their brains. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig observed that babies succeed in associating a meaning with a word between the age of six and eight months — a capability which until now was known for older children and adults. Memory which is assigned to the meaning of words passes through the same stages during sleep that also happen in typical lexical development: So-called protowords which combine only simultaneously occurring visual and acoustic stimuli become real words that are connected to content.

    The scientists investigated these relations by introducing six- to eight-month-old infants to fantasy objects which they gave fantasy names such as “Bofel” or “Zuser.” Objects that differed only in form or colour were called the same names — just as cats are called “cats” although they differ in their details. The researchers chose these fictitious objects to make sure that the young study participants could not access any existing knowledge.

    From the infants’ brain reaction it was clear that the children could not connect new objects of the same category with the corresponding name. That means they did not recognise a new Bofel as a “Bofel” although it was quite similar to the previously seen Bofel versions. For the babies, every new object-word pair was unknown and unique, they could not yet build a general relation between them.

    This changed after a midday nap. In babies who fell asleep after the learning phases, the brain could differentiate between the right and wrong term for a new object. They had consolidated their knowledge while sleeping. Babies that stayed awake could not manage to do so.

    Interestingly, the children developed two different types of knowledge depending on the duration of sleep. After a half-hour nap they showed a brain reaction which three-month-olds already have after associating a visual stimulus with an acoustic one. During their nap they filtered similar features out of the objects and connected them with the sound of a word. Similar to the three-month-old babies, they perceived the word as a random sound with no meaning.

    Unlike the infants who napped for half an hour, babies that slept for about 50 minutes showed a brain reaction that was previously only known for older children and adults. Here, the so-called N400 component occurred, which signals that incongruous meanings were processed in the brain — whether it be in sentences, word pairs, picture stories or object-word pairs. By means of this component the researchers were able to recognise that the young participants in fact learnt the meaning of the words.

    “Our results demonstrate that children hold real word meanings in their long-term memory much earlier than assumed. Although the brain structures relevant for this type of memory are not fully matured, they can already be used to a distinguishable extent,” explains Angela D. Friederici, director at MPI CBS and senior author of the underlying study which has recently been published in Current Biology.

    In this context, one stage of sleep could be of particular importance: The duration of the second of the four stages of sleep, in particular, seems to have an important influence on the development of lexical memory. “During this light sleep, the transition from a simple early developing form of lexical memory to an advanced later developing form evidently takes place,” says study leader Manuela Friedrich. “These two types of memory which develop during sleep are comparable with those that we know from infant development. Whereas during sleep there are just minutes in between the two types, in typical development there are months.” The formation of memory content in sleep clearly takes place in fast motion.

    “In our study, however, the babies received such a lot of information which they normally pick up within a longer time period,” Manuela Friedrich adds. “But only during sleep, when the child’s brain is disconnected from the outer world, can it filter and save essential relations. Only during the interaction between awake exploration and ordering processes while sleeping can early cognitive and linguistic capabilities develop properly.”