Over 250 million children globally are failing to achieve their full developmental potential as a result of the effects of poverty and chronic malnutrition.(1) Governments and non-governmental organizations everywhere are urged to design and implement public health, education, and environmental policies and programs to advance early childhood development (ECD).(2) Unfortunately, even carefully-designed and implemented programs may only have a small effect on ECD (e.g., ~0.2-0.3 standard deviations in a recent multi-study analysis of parenting programs globally)(3) and even this effect may fade out over time.(4) Moreover, commonly-used behavioral assessments of children under 3 years are limited in what they can tell us about long-term outcomes, such as school-readiness.(5,6) Relying on behavioral assessments for program evaluations overlooks possible parallel effects that we can observe with state-of-the-art technologies available in cognitive neuroscience. These technologies could expand our understanding of “what works” to advance ECD. By conducting translational neuroscience with the goal of uncovering markers and mechanisms that influence ECD, we could inform how children might benefit more from access to public health or other programs and better predict health and development for children everywhere.
This research aims to combine neuroimaging measures of brain function with behavioral measures of development based on children’s performance on everyday tasks. Functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) has been used for over 25 years to investigate cortical brain activity (7) by quantifying changes in the amount of oxygenated (HbO) and deoxygenated (HbR) hemoglobin in response to stimuli that trigger activity in the brain. fNIRS is especially suited to studying children because it is non-invasive, safe, silent, and, unlike other imaging techniques, is portable and tolerates bodily movement.(7) These child-friendly attributes have enabled advances in detecting early neural indicators of atypical and compromised development in children, (8,9) and in assessing the need for intervention in neonatal care.(10) Critically, fNIRS allows participants to engage in naturalistic scenarios, such as reaching for an object in studies of infants’ motor skills.(11) We propose to exploit this feature and collect fNIRS data while administering select behavioral tasks that reflect age-driven developmental milestones in ECD.
Our first objective is to replicate an established research experiment developed by Dr. Lauren Emberson at the University of British Columbia, which has been used in both Rochester, NY, USA in term (13) and preterm (14) infants, and in Taipei, Taiwan. (15, 16) We will compare the brain's response to this experiment across a wider range of children's ages than previously used.
Our next objective is to collect fNIRS data while administering select behavioral tasks that reflect age-driven developmental milestones in ECD. For example, the the pincer grasp (i.e., the ability to pick up a small object between thumb and index finger), as the neural underpinnings of the “reach and grasp” paradigm have been extensively studied in adults and the task is included in most, if not all, behavioral assessments of children. Other examples include scribbling and recognition of an object when it is named.
Based on studies in adults, we hypothesize that with children’s increasing age, experience, and ability to complete certain behavioral milestones, we will detect more changes in HbO and HbR concentrations in the parietal cortex. Examples of these behavioral milestones include the pincer grasp (e.g., ability to pick up a small object between the thumb and finger), scribbling and recognition of named objects in pictures. We expect to see differential brain activity as the developmental skill emerges with increasing age.
Black MM, Walker SP, Fernald LCH, et al. Early childhood development coming of age: science through the life course. The Lancet. 2017;389(10064):77-90. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)31389-7
Richter LM, Daelmans B, Lombardi J, et al. Investing in the foundation of sustainable development: pathways to scale up for early childhood development. The Lancet. 2017;389(10064):103-118. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)31698-1
Jeong J, Franchett EE, Ramos de Oliveira CV, Rehmani K, Yousafzai AK. Parenting interventions to promote early child development in the first three years of life: A global systematic review and meta-analysis. Persson LÅ, ed. PLoS Med. 2021;18(5):e1003602. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1003602
Andrew A, Attanasio O, Fitzsimons E, Grantham-McGregor S, Meghir C, Rubio-Codina M. Impacts 2 years after a scalable early childhood development intervention to increase psychosocial stimulation in the home: A follow-up of a cluster randomised controlled trial in Colombia. PLoS medicine. 2018;15(4):e1002556.
Fernald LC, Prado E, Kariger P, Raikes A. A toolkit for measuring early childhood development in low and middle-income countries. Published online 2017.
Weber AM, Rubio-Codina M, Walker SP, et al. The D-score: a metric for interpreting the early development of infants and toddlers across global settings. BMJ Global Health. 2019;4(6). doi:10.1136/bmjgh-2019-001724
Pinti P, Tachtsidis I, Hamilton A, et al. The present and future use of functional near‐infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) for cognitive neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2020;1464(1):5-29.
Liu T, Liu X, Yi L, Zhu C, Markey PS, Pelowski M. Assessing autism at its social and developmental roots: A review of Autism Spectrum Disorder studies using functional near-infrared spectroscopy. NeuroImage. 2019;185:955-967. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.09.044
Blasi A, Lloyd-Fox S, Katus L, Elwell CE. fNIRS for tracking brain development in the context of global health projects. In: Vol 6. MDPI; 2019:89.
Peng C, Hou X. Applications of functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) in neonates. Neuroscience Research. 2021;170:18-23. doi:10.1016/j.neures.2020.11.003
Nishiyori R, Bisconti S, Meehan SK, Ulrich BD. Developmental changes in motor cortex activity as infants develop functional motor skills. Dev Psychobiol. 2016;58(6):773-783. doi:10.1002/dev.21418
Cavina-Pratesi C, Connolly JD, Monaco S, et al. Human neuroimaging reveals the subcomponents of grasping, reaching and pointing actions. Cortex. 2018;98:128-148. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2017.05.018
Emberson LL, Richards JE, Aslin RN. Top-down modulation in the infant brain: Learning-induced expectations rapidly affect the sensory cortex at 6 months. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2015 Aug 4;112(31):9585-90.
Emberson LL, Boldin AM, Riccio JE, Guillet R, Aslin RN. Deficits in top-down sensory prediction in infants at risk due to premature birth. Current Biology. 2017 Feb 6;27(3):431-6.
Wang S, Tzeng OJ, Aslin RN. Predictive brain signals mediate association between shared reading and expressive vocabulary in infants. PloS one. 2022 Aug 3;17(8):e0272438.
Wang S, Zhang X, Hong T, Tzeng OJ, Aslin R. Top-down sensory prediction in the infant brain at 6 months is correlated with language development at 12 and 18 months. Brain and Language. 2022 Jul 1;230:105129.