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Researching Autism in toddlers at Birkbeck’s Babylab

Cutting edge technology is unlocking the mystery of how babies learn, writes Leslie Tucker, Co-ordinator for Brain and Cognitive development, Birkbeck College.

Cutting edge technology is unlocking the mystery of how babies learn, writes Leslie Tucker, Co-ordinator for Brain and Cognitive development, Birkbeck College.

Birkbeck University of London, began as so many great things do – in a pub. Founded by George Birkbeck as the Mechanics Institute nearly two centuries ago, it aimed to bring working people together in the evenings to learn about the arts, sciences and technical subjects.

Today, it is a world-class research and teaching institution, and still the UK’s only specialist provider of evening higher education, drawing students and academics from more than 120 countries.

Birkbeck’s scientists are working on projects as varied as investigating the impact of a hitherto unknown meteorite strike in Scotland, and discovering new antibacterial properties in the humble onion. But one of its most unique research enterprises is the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD) or the ‘Birkbeck BabyLab,’ as it is commonly known.

The Centre, founded 20 years ago, has studied almost 20,000 babies and built a reputation for excellence in understanding infant development. Its mission is to better understand how babies learn and develop. Why do infants learn to pay attention to some things and not others? How do they start to understand what other people do and think?

CBCD scientists investigate these questions – as well as looking at the differences in development between infants who have siblings with autismand/or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and those who do not –because we know there is a higher risk that these infants could go on to develop these conditions.

These are both relatively common disorders globally. In the UK, ADHD affects around 5 per cent of the population and autism around 1 per cent – and are life-long conditions that can also have a profound effect on the quality of life for other family members. BabyLab scientists hope studying these populations may identify the early signs of these developmental conditions, allowing for timely and more effective interventions.

Parent volunteers bring their babies to the central London labs to take part in a range of studies, which might include showing them images while recording where babies look, or observing them playing with a parent or researcher. Technological advances have led to new methods that make it easier to get answers out of babies. Scientists can now measure exactly where babies look with eye tracker technology or measure brain activity while the young participants take part in a variety of tasks.

Ordinarily, however, babies will be seated on their parents’ lap and looking at two-dimensional images on a computer monitor.

Although babies are pretty compliant whilst participating in these studies, toddlers can be more challenging. The age range from about 18 months to four years old is often regarded as a “black hole” of developmental studies, due to the difficulties in testing highly mobile and active young children with a poor understanding of verbal instructions.

Another challenge is translating findings from a controlled laboratory environment to how a toddler might behave in the real world, for instance playing in a living room with a sibling present.

So Birkbeck is building a new ToddlerLab facility, incorporating recent
advances in wireless brain imaging and behavioural technology, meaning that CBCD scientists can now study moving toddlers in more naturalistic surroundings.

The ToddlerLab will contain several naturalistic rooms. One room will be set-up to look like a typical living room where they might play with siblings or have a book read to them by a parent, while another will mimic a ‘pre-school’ room where multiple toddlers could be given activities they might do at school.

There will also be a ‘Cave Automatic Virtual Environment’ (CAVE) where scientists can project images onto three walls and the floor to immerse children into any scenario it is possible to program– such as a farmyard or a city street. Researchers will be able to record where a child is in the room and where a child is looking and measure brain activity.

This state-of-the-art facility will open up a new world of experiments in the study of child development, leading to better interventions to improve the lives of children and their families.

The CBCD’s work on infants’ psychological processes has had many practical implications for children living with developmental conditions in the 20 years since its conception. Its scientists have identified the earliest marker of autism in babies, researched links between Down’s syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease, and investigated the effects of screen time on children’s sleep habits.

The CBCD’s relevance to both individual families and the international research community is set to continue as it embarks on its next chapter.

For further information on the CBCD’s work, please visit their website