Nav: Home

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018

Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight -- how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

Researchers at Penn State are using new statistical analysis methods to compare how we observe infants develop new skills with the unseen changes in electrical activity in the brain, or electroencephalography (EEG) power. They found that most babies appear to learn new skills in irregular bursts, while their EEG power grows steadily behind the scenes.

Koraly Perez-Edgar, professor of psychology at Penn State, said the study -- published today (Jan. 17) in Child Development -- supports long-standing but untested beliefs about how infants develop.

"This is a question that has bedeviled psychologists for most of the last century. Our data help show how behaviors that we can observe in children are indeed non-linear, showing up in spurts," Perez-Edgar said. "However, the underlying forces that help support this observed behavior can be linear. For a long time there was a debate over whether both of these things could hold true."

Perez-Edgar said that while the famous child psychologist Jean Piaget theorized that young children develop in bursts instead of little by little over time, testing the theory was limited by the statistical analysis tools available to researchers. But with new modeling methods, the researchers were able to better examine how behavioral development is related to growth in brain activity.

"Psychologists have been suggesting that while on the surface development looks like these quick bursts, underneath there may be very continuous, slowly developing mechanisms that one day look like they popped out of nowhere," Perez Edgar said. "Like with kids learning to talk, it looks like they learn all these words overnight, but they've been listening and thinking and processing for a long time."

A total of 28 six-month-old infants were recruited and brought to the lab once a month until they turned one year old. During each visit, the baby participated in a cognitive test called the "a-not-b task," designed in the 1950s to measure an infant's understanding of object permanence: knowing something exists even if it's out of sight.

In the task, a researcher put a cardboard box with two wells -- A and B -- across from the infant. The researcher then hid a toy in one well and covered it with cloth, hiding it from view. The infant was considered successful if they correctly retrieved the toy twice from well A and then once from well B after the researcher hid it.

"How babies perform in this task tells us a lot about their development because it's a coordination of multiple skills," said Leigha MacNeill, Penn State graduate student in psychology. "They have to remember where the ball was moved, which is working memory. They have to know an object exists even though it's out of sight, and they need to track objects moving in space from one place to another. All of this also required them to pay attention. So there's a lot going on."

The researchers also measured the infants' EEG at each visit. A cap with six electrodes was placed on the baby's head, with each electrode measuring the electrical activity in different regions of the brain. Readings were taken for two minutes while the infants focused on a spinning wheel.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that performance on the a-not-b task did indeed develop in bursts: with most of the infants, there wasn't a lot of development in the first or last months, but there was a big spike between seven and eleven months. At the same time, the researchers found that EEG power grew at a steady pace throughout the seven months.

"We saw that a nonlinear growth curve was the best way to describe most of the babies," MacNeill said. "Meanwhile, we found that there was significant linear change at all electrode locations. We also saw associations between EEG power in the occipital lobe and performance on the a-not-b task. Infants who had lower levels of occipital power at six months of age had faster increases in a-not-b performance over time."

Because the researchers analyzed each baby's personal development, in addition to taking an average of all the babies together, MacNeill said the results help shed some light on what's happening in the brain when infants are learning new skills.

"Infant behavior varies so much from baby to baby, so it's helpful to understand what's going on beneath the surface," MacNeill said. "This multi-method approach is helpful, because we can see both the infants' behavior and also what's going on in the brain. It gives us a better sense of where this variability comes from, and can help us see what's happening in the brain when the infant isn't getting better at the task verses when there's rapid development."
-end-
Nilam Ram, Penn State; Martha Ann Bell, Virginia Tech; and Nathan A. Fox, University of Maryland, also participated in this study.

This work was supported by an National Institutes of Health grant to Nathan A. Fox.

Penn State

Related Brain Articles:

Study describes changes to structural brain networks after radiotherapy for brain tumors
Researchers compared the thickness of brain cortex in patients with brain tumors before and after radiation therapy was applied and found significant dose-dependent changes in the structural properties of cortical neural networks, at both the local and global level.
Blue Brain team discovers a multi-dimensional universe in brain networks
Using a sophisticated type of mathematics in a way that it has never been used before in neuroscience, a team from the Blue Brain Project has uncovered a universe of multi-dimensional geometrical structures and spaces within the networks of the brain.
New brain mapping tool produces higher resolution data during brain surgery
Researchers have developed a new device to map the brain during surgery and distinguish between healthy and diseased tissues.
Newborn baby brain scans will help scientists track brain development
Scientists have today published ground-breaking scans of newborn babies' brains which researchers from all over the world can download and use to study how the human brain develops.
New test may quickly identify mild traumatic brain injury with underlying brain damage
A new test using peripheral vision reaction time could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment of mild traumatic brain injury, often referred to as a concussion.
This is your brain on God: Spiritual experiences activate brain reward circuits
Religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music, report researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
Brain scientists at TU Dresden examine brain networks during short-term task learning
'Practice makes perfect' is a common saying. We all have experienced that the initially effortful implementation of novel tasks is becoming rapidly easier and more fluent after only a few repetitions.
Balancing time & space in the brain: New model holds promise for predicting brain dynamics
A team of scientists has extended the balanced network model to provide deep and testable predictions linking brain circuits to brain activity.
New view of brain development: Striking differences between adult and newborn mouse brain
Spikes in neuronal activity in young mice do not spur corresponding boosts in blood flow -- a discovery that stands in stark contrast to the adult mouse brain.
Map of teenage brain provides evidence of link between antisocial behavior and brain development
The brains of teenagers with serious antisocial behavior problems differ significantly in structure to those of their peers, providing the clearest evidence to date that their behavior stems from changes in brain development in early life, according to new research led by the University of Cambridge and the University of Southampton, in collaboration with the University of Rome Tor Vergata in Italy.

Related Brain Reading:

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science
by Norman Doidge (Author)

Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain - for Life
by Hachette Audio

The Human Brain Book: An Illustrated Guide to its Structure, Function, and Disorders
by Rita Carter (Author)

Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar - Your Brain's Silent Killers
by Hachette Audio

The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind
by Daniel J. Siegel (Author), Tina Payne Bryson (Author)

Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power
by Lisa Mosconi PhD (Author)

The Brain: The Story of You
by David Eagleman (Author)

Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain
by Mark F. Bear (Author), Barry W. Connors (Author), Michael A. Paradiso (Author)

Change Your Brain, Change Your Life (Revised and Expanded): The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Lack of Focus, Anger, and Memory Problems
by Daniel G. Amen M.D. (Author)

The Brain's Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity
by Norman Doidge (Author)

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Bias And Perception
How does bias distort our thinking, our listening, our beliefs... and even our search results? How can we fight it? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas about the unconscious biases that shape us. Guests include writer and broadcaster Yassmin Abdel-Magied, climatologist J. Marshall Shepherd, journalist Andreas Ekström, and experimental psychologist Tony Salvador.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#513 Dinosaur Tails
This week: dinosaurs! We're discussing dinosaur tails, bipedalism, paleontology public outreach, dinosaur MOOCs, and other neat dinosaur related things with Dr. Scott Persons from the University of Alberta, who is also the author of the book "Dinosaurs of the Alberta Badlands".