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Infant brain activity predicts cognitive ability later in life

The findings are a result of two large longitudinal studies led by Birkbeck.

Professor Emily Jones

New research from Birkbeck shows that measuring the brain activity of babies could help us predict cognitive development from toddlerhood to childhood. Where there are concerns, this would enable interventions to be made earlier, leading to better outcomes in later life.

The findings come as part of two large longitudinal studies led by Professor Emily Jones, Professor in the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, with an international team of collaborators at King’s College London, the University of Cambridge, University of Gothenburg, Duke University and the University of Washington. The longitudinal studies follow both typically developing infants and infants with older siblings with autism, who have a higher likelihood of varied social and cognitive outcomes. The team combined data from these cohorts to assess whether brain activity at 12 months of age relates to cognitive skills in later childhood. 

Brain activity was measured at 12 months with electroencephalography (EEG), a non-invasive method that measures the oscillatory states involved in memory and learning. Researchers recorded dynamic changes in brain activity whilst participants watched a series of videos that engaged learning, memory and attention systems. Cognitive ability was measured using standardised assessments at 1, 2, 3 and 7 years.

The study found that EEG activity at 12 months predicted childhood verbal and nonverbal cognitive skills across the cohorts. For a small group of 12-month-olds who later developed ASD, brain activity explained over 80% of the variance in the infant’s nonverbal skills at three years old.

Founded in 1998, the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development is one of the world’s leading centres for studying the way in which babies and young children’s brains develop. The research was made possible through grants from the Medical Research Council, the European Union Innovative Medicines Initiative, and the US National Institutes of Health.

Professor Jones said:

“Studying dynamic EEG changes in infancy could help us understand the neural mechanisms that underpin individual differences in childhood cognition. In the future, this might enable us to rapidly identify children at heightened risk for poor cognitive development and also help predict where early intervention may help children with learning difficulties so that they have better outcomes in later life. This study is part of broader effects at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development to measure the early differences in brain development that predict meaningful outcomes for children with different challenges, and to use that knowledge to develop new ways to support children to reach their full potential.”

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