The minds babies start with – research shows baby brains hardwired to see faces, places
Within hours of birth, a baby’s gaze is drawn to faces. New research from Emory University psychologists has revealed the neurobiology underlying this behaviour showing that as young as six days old, a baby’s brain appears hardwired for the specialised tasks of seeing faces and places.
The work of the Emory psychologists, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) provides the earliest peek yet into the visual cortex of newborns, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
“We’re investigating a fundamental question of where knowledge comes from by homing in on ‘nature versus nature,” Associate Professor Daniel Dilks, senior author of the study said, by focusing on the question of “what do we come into the world with and what do we gain by experience?”
Baby brains are far more adult-like than many assume, added Frederik Kamps, who led the study as a PhD candidate at Emory. “Much of the scaffolding for the human visual cortex is already in place, along with the patterns of brain activity, although the patterns are not as strong compared to those of adults.”
Understanding how an infant’s brain is typically organised may help answer questions when something goes awry, Associate Professor Dilks said. “For example, if the face network in a newborn’s visual cortex was not well-connected, that might be a biomarker for disorders associated with an aversion to eye contact. By diagnosing the problem earlier, we could intervene earlier and take advantage of the incredible malleability of the infant brain.”
While scientists have known for many years that adult brains contain two regions that work together to process faces, and another two regions that work together to process places, more recent research has shown that children’s brains work in much the same way, but up until now, it was not known how early this process begins.
To gather the recently released data, scientists worked with newborns, the average age of whom was 27 days. “We needed to get closer to the date of birth in order to better understand if we are born with this differentiation in our brains or if it’s molded by experience,” Associate Professor Dilks explained.
fMRI technology was adapted to make it baby friendly. The non-invasive technology used a giant magnet to scan the body and record the magnetic properties in blood. Heightened blood flow to a brain region indicated that region is more active.
Thirty infants, ranging in age from six days to 57 days, participated in the experiments while sleeping. During scanning, they were wrapped in an inflatable “super swaddler,” a papoose-like device that serves as a stabiliser while also making the baby feel secure.
“Getting fMRI data from a newborn is a new frontier in neuroimaging,” Dr Kamps outlined. “The scanner is like a giant camera and you need the participant’s head to be still in order to get high quality images. A baby that is asleep is a baby that’s willing to lie still.”
To serve as controls, 24 adults were scanned in a resting state – awake but not stimulated by anything in particular.
The scanner captured intrinsic fluctuations of the brain for both the infants and adults.
The results showed the two regions of the visual cortex associated with face processing fired in sync in the infants, as did the two networks associated with places. The infant patterns were similar to those of the adult participants, although not quite as strong.
“That finding suggest that there is room for these networks to keep getting fine-tuned as infants mature into adulthood,” Dr Kamps said.
Put simply, ‘face’ networks and ‘place’ networks of the brain are ‘hooked up and talking to each other’ within days of birth, Associate Professor Dilks explained.
To read the full research paper, please see here.