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Babies' brains tuned to sharing attention with others

27 January 2010

Two babies sitting on a sofa and playing with toys
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 attention - 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 brain activation, is well-suited to study freely-behaving infants. 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 brain tissue, 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 brain 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."

Image: Two babies sitting on a sofa and playing with toys. Credit: Anthea Sieveking, Wellcome Images

Reference

Grossmann T and Johnson MH. Selective prefrontal cortex responses to joint attention in early infancy. Biol Lett. 2010 [Epub ahead of print]

Contact

Craig Brierley
Senior Media Officer
Wellcome Trust
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+44 (0)20 7611 7329
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c.brierley@wellcome.ac.uk

Notes for editors

The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending over £600 million each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing.

Medical Research Council - For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including the first antibiotic penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century.

Birkbeck, University of London, was founded in 1823. It is a world-class research and teaching institution and a vibrant centre of academic excellence. Over 90 per cent of Birkbeck academics are research-active - the highest rate for any multi-faculty institution in London and the fifth highest in the UK. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise placed Birkbeck research in the top 25 per cent of multi-faculty institutions in the UK. In 2006 Birkbeck was awarded a prestigious Queen's Anniversary Prize for excellence in higher education research.

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