As I cradle my new baby against my breast, snuggled back against the couch cushions in my bathrobe, I stare into her dark eyes. Brinna gazes back at me in that kind of unbroken stare that babies have, focusing intently on my face, and I wonder what’s going on inside that little brain of hers. Suddenly she breaks contact, looking away, so I avert my gaze as well.
This back and forth dance between us is called “serve and return” by neuroscientists who study how babies' brains develop, with Brinna reaching out for interaction (the serve), and me responding with similar kinds of vocalizations and gestures (the return).
While babies were once described as blank slates to write on, or passive sponges absorbing the world around them, neuroscientists have shown us that babies are much more like scientists — curiosity-driven researchers who work in tandem with their primary caregivers to explore this strange new world around them.
Babies themselves actually lead these explorations, as Brinna did, gazing up at me to make some sense of my face, and then looking away to integrate what she has learned when looking at me into her understanding of the world. Sensitive to her cues, when she looked away, so did I, waiting for her to signal me to that she’s ready to explore again. It is through many, many such “serve and return” interactions with everyone she encounters that her brain will develop.
“Human babies are drawn to the face configuration from the time they are born,” Dr. Mayada Elsabbagh, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, told me. “Babies as young as three hours old are able to distinguish between something that looks like a face, with two eyes next to each other, from a similar picture that does not look like a face.”
Gradually babies develop the ability to focus on the same thing in the environment as another person caring for them, such as both of them looking out the window together.” Then babies can explore their social environments in this way, mapping words onto objects, and realizing over time that other people have interests and intentions.”
Elsabbagh has spent the past few years in Britain working with researchers who are studying how infant brains develop in order to identify if there are differences in how infants later diagnosed with autism look at faces, compared to normally-developing children. One of the common behaviours of children with autism spectrum disorder is a lack of eye contact.
Preliminary results of this work, published in Current Biology in February 2012, have shown that it may be possible to detect signs of autism spectrum disorder in babies as young as six to ten months by measuring their brain’s activities when looking at faces on a screen. Currently, autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed through behavioural symptoms which don’t appear until a child is at least a year old.
While there is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, children who are diagnosed earlier could benefit by receiving treatments earlier in life, such that they are better able to cope with this neurological disorder which affects about 1% of the population, Elsebbagh says.
However, research into brain development is in the very early stages, she adds. “The brain is very complex system, subject to many factors and influences, and a baby’s brain changes every day.” While the first three years of a child’s life is a time of rapid brain development, with sensitive periods ideal for the development of certain skills, our brains remain malleable, and we are able to form new connections throughout our lives, Elsabbagh says.
“Babies’ brains are biased to go in a particular direction, which is to learn through social interactions with other people,” Elsabbagh explains. “They just need a bit of encouragement from the people around them to do so.”
Parents and other caregivers can encourage this development by holding and interacting with them as they care for them in loving, stable environments. “It isn’t necessary to play them classical music, or to have them watch baby videos,” she adds.
Since coming back to Canada last year, Elsabbagh has joined NeuroDevNet, a national research network on brain development established in 2010 and funded by the government of Canada.
NeuroDevNet researchers are studying ways to identify, treat and prevent neurological disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. They are also working extensively with patients affected by neurological disorders, their families, and health services providers, so that they can benefit from new understanding of how brains development, and how to best treat and manage with these disorders.
Elsabbagh works with Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine , Fleur Macqueen Smith, and others on knowledge translation and communications to connect people with NeuroDevNet researchers for mutual benefit.
By Fleur Macqueen Smith, kidSKAN’s facilitator and editor-in-chief. Fleur can be reached at email@example.com.