Researchers find improved attention and memory skills in infants of blind parents

Study finds that sighted babies of blind parents may benefit from unusual face-to-face communication.

Scientists at Birkbeck have found that the unusual face-to-face communication that sighted babies have with their blind parents does not have any adverse effect on the development of their social communication skills, and may have a positive effect on the development of other cognitive skills.

Dr Atsushi Senju and his colleagues at Birkbeck’s Babylab followed the development of five sighted babies with blind parents and found that while they had near typical face-to-face communication skills with sighted adults, they rapidly learned to use different modes of communication with their blind parents. Surprisingly, the babies showed superior visual attention and memory skills as compared to controls in the study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Infants were assessed on three separate occasions from the age of 6-10 months up to two to four years. Face scanning and gaze following were assessed using eye tracking. In addition, the researchers measured any autistic-like behaviours and tested cognitive, motor and linguistic development. These data were compared with those obtained from a larger group of sighted infants of sighted parents.

Infants with blind parents did not show an overall decrease in eye contact or gaze following when they observed sighted adults, nor did they show any autistic-like behaviours. However, they directed their own eye gaze somewhat less frequently, and used more vocal communication instead, towards their blind mothers. The researchers thus concluded that being reared with significantly reduced experience of eye contact does not prevent sighted infants from developing typical gaze behaviour and other social-communication skills.

Sighted infants of blind parents in fact showed improved performance in visual memory and attention at younger ages. The researchers speculate that the need to switch between different modes of communication with different adults may actually enhance other skills during development.

Dr Atsushi Senju said: “This study clearly demonstrate that babies are not passively learning from adults, but carefully watching their reactions and flexibly adjust the way they communicate with the adults. Such a capacity is fundamental to the way humans adapt to the complex social environment and learn cultural knowledge.”

This work was supported by the UK Medical Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and the BASIS funding consortium led by Autistica.