How children stay alert, even with an informal brain

Anyone who has watched a baby’s eyes dancing a trinket hanging in front of them knows that babies are capable of attention with laser focus.

But with large areas of their young brains still underdeveloped, how can they do that?

Using a Yale-initiated approach that uses fMRI (or magnetic field motion imaging) to scan the brains of awake babies, a team of university psychologists show, when they focusing attention on children under the age of one year employing areas of their frontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in more advanced activities that were previously thought to be abnormal in children. The results were published March 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Attention is a gateway to what babies see and learn,” said Nick Turk-Browne, a Yale professor of psychology and senior author of the paper. “It’s the attention of the bouncer at the door, determining what information enters the brain, which ultimately creates memories, language, and thinking.”

Most previous research related to attention in children has relied on monitoring their vision while receiving visual stimuli, a process that is theoretical offering insights into what is going on in their minds. There are unanswered left questions about which parts of the brain are involved in these responses, and how and why they satisfy attention in these ways.

Attention in infants may depend on sensory areas of the brain, which process stimuli such as touch and visual stimuli and help them respond to the outside world. These brain regions develop earlier in childhood than the regions of the frontal cortex, which are typically associated with internal functions such as control, planning, and reasoning.

The ability to use brain images with babies allowed us to “look behind the mirror,” for sources of attention clouds, Turk-Browne said.

For the study, they used the new fMRI technology to monitor the neural activity of 20 infants between 3 and 12 months, monitoring the activated areas of their brains while focusing. attention in response to a series of pictures.

In a series of experiments, the children were shown a screen on which a target would appear on either left or right side. In each case, these displays preceded one of three visual captures indicating where the target would appear: on the same side the target would appear, on either side of the screen (hence non- informative), or vice versa. Researchers monitored babies’ eye movements as they performed these tasks.

As expected, the children were quicker to move their eyes to the target when they first showed the right advice, confirming that things had focused their attention. At the same time, the researchers used brain imaging technology to see which areas of the brain were recruited during these activities. In addition to sensory areas of the brain, they found that activity also increased in two areas of the frontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial frontal gyrus, areas of the brain that when fully developed involved in controlling adult attention.

“This does not mean that these categories have the same place in children as they do in adults, but it does show that babies are using them to explore their visual world,” said Cameron Ellis, Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Yale and first author of the paper.

Studying how the brain is listed during development “will help researchers learn the basics of human learning, which may one day help improve early childhood education and reveal the roots of disorders neurodevelopmental, “Ellis said.

Information: Ellis CT, Skalaban LJ, Yates TS, Turk-Browne NB. Attention employs facial cortex in human infants. PNAS. 2021; 118 (12). doi: 10.1073 / pnas.2021474118

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