A glimpse into the workings of a baby brain

13th Jan 2017

In adults, certain regions of the brain's visual cortex respond preferentially to specific types of input. However, science is yet to discover how and when these preferences arise.

Neuroscientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have done research looking into babies brains and comparing the regions to the knowledge they have on adult brains, using MRI scanning.

The researchers adapted the MRI in order to make it more comfortable for the babies' to be in. They built a special coil that allows the baby to recline, similar to a car seat. A mirror was set up in front of the baby's face to allow videos to be played. There was also space in the MRI scanner for the baby's parent or research to sit in along side the infant. Finally, the machine was made to be less noisy so the child could hear their parents voice.

In the study, the babies were 4-6 months old and placed in the scanner to watch a variety of videos, either showing smiling children or an outdoor scene. The researchers only used data from the time periods when the babies were actively watching the movies. They obtained 4 hours of useable data from 9 babies.

The results showed that many regions of the babies' visual cortex showed the same preferences for scenes or faces as seen in adult brains. This suggests that these preferences form within the first few months of life, and contradicts the hypothesis that it takes years of experience of interpreting the world for the brain to develop the responses that it shows in adulthood.

Some differences were also found in the way babies' respond to visual stimuli. They do not seem to have regions that are selective like adult brains, meaning they do not prefer features such as human faces over any other kind of input. The researchers interpreted this as the adult-like organisation of the infant visual cortex provides a scaffolding that guides the subsequent refinement of responses via experience.

Future research aims to look at infants aged 3-8 months old, so they can gain a better understanding of how these vision-processing regions change over time, and when they first appear.

To read the full article, please head to MIT website

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