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The ‘social brain’ is observed in newborn babies for the first time

04 October 2013

Scientists observe newborns' brain responses to human faces

For the first time, an area of the brain which responds to social interaction in adults has been observed to respond in newborn babies just hours old. Scientists from Birkbeck, University of London and the Università di Padova, Italy have shown that as early as 24 hours after birth the ‘social brain’ can already differentiate between social interactions such as playing ‘peekaboo’ and non-social movement such as an arm manipulating an object.

Previously, the earliest observations of brain responses to social human actions were in four-month-old babies, who had already had thousands of hours of face-to-face communication and could have learned to respond to these social stimuli through that human contact. The new study, published today in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, suggests that we already respond to such cues from very early in life.

Furthermore, the tests were taken between 24 hours and 120 hours of birth and the strength of the observed response to social cues increased significantly with the number of hours following birth, indicating that face to face interactions, even within the first few hours of life,  play an important role in the development of the social brain.

All of the children in the study were classed as low risk for developmental disorders such as autism, but the current findings could provide a new avenue for the study of infants at risk for developmental disorders from the first days of life.

Birkbeck Babylab scientist Dr Sarah Lloyd Fox, who worked on the study, explains: “This study gives us a clearer understanding of what brain activity related to social cues should look like in a typically developing baby. Eventually we may be able to compare this to the brain activity of infants who are classed as high-risk for autism to see whether they display differences in these brain responses from birth. This might lead to earlier diagnosis of autism, which would enable families to have more support from an earlier time in their child’s development.”

The study used a technique known as near infra-red spectroscopy to measure the brain activity of the newborns. This is the first time that scientists have been able to use this technique to look at visual processing of humans with such young babies.

The study was funded by the Università degli Studi di Padova and by the UK Medical Research Council.