Babies' brains tuned to sharing attention with others

January 27, 2010, Wellcome Trust

Children as young as five months old will follow the gaze of an adult towards an object and engage in joint attention, according to research funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council. The findings, published today in the Royal Society's journal Biology Letters, suggests that the human brain develops this important social skill surprisingly early in infancy.

Joint - where two people share attention to the same object - is a vital human social skill necessary for many types of human behaviour such as teaching, collaboration, and language learning. Impairments in this skill are one of the earliest signs of autism.

Dr Tobias Grossmann and Professor Mark Johnson from Birkbeck, University of London, used a technique known as 'near infrared spectroscopy' (NIRS) to examine which areas of an infant's brain are activated when paying joint attention to an object.

NIRS, an optical brain imaging technique which involves measuring the blood flow associated with , is well-suited to study freely-behaving . With this non-invasive technique, near-infrared light travels from sources on a sensor pad located on the head, through the skin, skull and underlying , and is then detected by sensitive detectors on the same sensor pad.

In the experiment, conducted in Birkbeck's Babylab, the babies were shown the computer-animated image of an adult's face. The adult would make eye contact with the baby, raise her eyebrows and smile, glance towards an object at her side, back to the baby and then finally turn her head to face the object. In the control conditions, the adult would look away from the object or would look at the object without making eye contact with the baby.

The researchers found that only when the babies engaged in joint attention with the adult, they used a specific region of their brain known as the left prefrontal cortex - an area to the front of the brain involved in complex cognitive and social behaviours.

"Infants engaged in joint attention use a similar region of their as adults do," says Dr Grossmann, a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow. "Our study suggests that the infants are tuned to sharing attention with other humans much earlier than previously thought. This may be a vital basis for the infant's social development and learning."

"In the future this approach could be used to assess individual differences in infants' responses to joint attention and might, in combination with other measures, serve as a marker that can help with an early identification of infants at risk for autism."

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Electrical implant reduces 'invisible' symptoms of man's spinal cord injury

February 19, 2018
An experimental treatment that sends electrical currents through the spinal cord has improved "invisible" yet debilitating side effects for a B.C. man with a spinal cord injury.

Brainwaves show how exercising to music bends your mind

February 18, 2018
Headphones are a standard sight in gyms and we've long known research shows listening to tunes can be a game-changer for your run or workout.

To sleep, perchance to forget

February 17, 2018
The debate in sleep science has gone on for a generation. People and other animals sicken and die if they are deprived of sleep, but why is sleep so essential?

Newborn babies who suffered stroke regain language function in opposite side of brain

February 17, 2018
It's not rare that a baby experiences a stroke around the time it is born. Birth is hard on the brain, as is the change in blood circulation from the mother to the neonate. At least 1 in 4,000 babies are affected shortly ...

Lab-grown human cerebellar cells yield clues to autism

February 16, 2018
Increasing evidence has linked autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with dysfunction of the brain's cerebellum, but the details have been unclear. In a new study, researchers at Boston Children's Hospital used stem cell technology ...

Fragile X syndrome neurons can be restored, study shows

February 16, 2018
Fragile X syndrome is the most frequent cause of intellectual disability in males, affecting one out of every 3,600 boys born. The syndrome can also cause autistic traits, such as social and communication deficits, as well ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.