The Big Baby Experiment

Posted on November 6, 2015

Photo source: Flickr

How do you get into the mind of a human being who cannot speak, does not follow instructions and rudely interrupts your experiments?

That is the challenge embraced by scientists at the Babylab. The brain undergoes more change during the first two years of life than at any other time: consciousness, traits of personality, temperament and ability all become apparent, as do the first signs that development could be drifting off course. But this period is also the most difficult to explore, because many of the standard tools of human neuroscience are useless: babies will not lie awake and still in an imaging machine, and they cannot answer questions or do as they are told. Researchers have measured infants' interest and attention mostly by tracking their gaze—but even this method has been criticized as crude.

The field is now becoming more sophisticated, thanks in part to the Birkbeck lab. Scientists there have pioneered techniques such as infant near-infrared spectrometry (NIRS), which measures brain activity by recording the colour, and therefore the oxygenation, of blood. They are also trying to strengthen conclusions by combining multiple techniques.

The lab has used such tools to reveal a series of 'firsts' about the infant mind: that babies prefer to look at faces that are looking directly at them, rather than away from them; that they respond to such direct gaze with enhanced neural processing; and that changes in this brain response may be associated with the later emergence of autism—the first evidence that a measure of brain function might be used to predict the condition.

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Source material from Scientific American


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