Ever wondered what’s going on inside young children’s brains when they’re looking at things? What are 3-and-4-year olds thinking or feeling? Locally, here in Sacramento, researchers at the University of California, Davis, are working with neuroimaging. See, “Major advance in understanding the microcircuitry of cognition.”
Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis researchers, researchers Andre Bastos and Ron Mangun, working with collaborators in Germany and the UK, have published a paper in the journal Neuron that makes a major advance in understanding the microcircuitry of cognition. An essential element of cognition is the ability to make predictions, and this paper shows how the microstructure of cortical columns implements the pattern of connectivity needed for predictive coding.
Neuroimaging determines which areas of the brain are activated in 3-and-4-year olds
Currently, other researchers at the University of Iowa have used optical neuroimaging for the first time on 3-and 4-year-olds to determine which areas of the brain are activated in “visual working memory.” When young children gaze intently at something or furrow their brows in concentration, you know their minds are busily at work. But you’re never entirely sure what they’re thinking. Now you can get an inside look.
Psychologists led by the University of Iowa for the first time have peered inside the brain with optical neuroimaging to quantify how much 3- and 4-year-old children are grasping when they survey what’s around them and to learn what areas of the brain are in play. The study looks at “visual working memory,” a core cognitive function in which we stitch together what we see at any given point in time to help focus attention.
In a series of object-matching tests, the researchers found that 3-year-olds can hold a maximum of 1.3 objects in visual working memory, while 4-year-olds reach capacity at 1.8 objects. By comparison, adults max out at 3 to 4 objects, according to prior studies.
“This is literally the first look into a 3 and 4-year-old’s brain in action in this particular working memory task,” says John Spencer, psychology professor at the UI and corresponding author of the paper, which appears in the journal NeuroImage, according to a June 27, 2013 news release, “A look inside children’s minds.”
Researchers at the University of Iowa have found that children have a limit to what they can see and remember at a given time, known as visual working memory. In tests, the researchers found that 3-year-olds can hold a maximum of 1.3 objects in visual working memory, while 4-year-olds reach capacity at 1.8 objects. Adults hit the ceiling at 3 to 4 objects.
Visual working memory performance is linked to attention span and developmental coordination
The research is important, because visual working memory performance has been linked to a variety of childhood disorders, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, developmental coordination disorder as well as affecting children born prematurely. The goal is to use the new brain imaging technique to detect these disorders before they manifest themselves in children’s behavior later on.
“At a young age, children may behave the same,” notes Spencer, who’s also affiliated with the Delta Center and whose department is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, in the news release, A look inside children’s minds. “But if you can distinguish these problems in the brain, then it’s possible to intervene early and get children on a more standard trajectory.”
Plenty of research has gone into better understanding visual working memory in children and adults
Those prior studies divined neural networks in action using function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). That worked great for adults, but not so much with children, especially young ones, whose jerky movements threw the machine’s readings off kilter. So, Spencer and his team turned to functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which has been around since the 1960s but has never been used to look at working memory in children as young as three years of age.
“It’s not a scary environment,” says Spencer of the fNIRS in the news release. “No tube, no loud noises. You just have to wear a cap.”
Like fMRI, fNIRS records neural activity by measuring the difference in oxygenated blood concentrations anywhere in the brain. You’ve likely seen similar technology when a nurse puts your finger in a clip to check your circulation. In the brain, when a region is activated, neurons fire like mad, gobbling up oxygen provided in the blood.
Those neurons need another shipment of oxygen-rich blood to arrive to keep going. The fNIRS measures the contrast between oxygen-rich and oxygen-deprived blood to gauge which area of the brain is going full tilt at a point in time.
The researchers outfitted the youngsters with colorful, comfortable ski hats in which fiber optic wires had been woven
The children played a computer game in which they were shown a card with one to three objects of different shapes for two seconds. After a pause of a second, the children were shown a card with either the same or different shapes. They responded whether they had seen a match.
The tests revealed novel insights. First, neural activity in the right frontal cortex was an important barometer of higher visual working memory capacity in both age groups. This could help clinicians evaluate children’s visual working memory at a younger age than before, and work with those whose capacity falls below the norm, the researchers explain in the news release.
Parietal cortex used more in four-year-olds than in three-year olds: guiding spatial attention
Secondly, 4-year olds showed a greater use than 3-year olds of the parietal cortex, located in both hemispheres below the crown of the head and which is believed to guide spatial attention. “This suggests that improvements in performance are accompanied by increases in the neural response,” adds Aaron Buss in the news release.
Buss is a UI graduate student in psychology and the first author on the paper. “Further work will be needed to explain exactly how the neural response increases—either through changes in local tuning, or through changes in long range connectivity, or some combination.”
Contributing authors include David Boas from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and Nicholas Fox, research assistant at the UI. The National Institutes of Health (grant number: P41 14075) funded the research through a grant to Boas. Other funding came from the UI’s funding of the Delta Center’s Child Imaging Laboratory in Development Science (CHILDS) facility. This is the first study from data collected from the CHILDS facility.
Can parasites from pet cats be messing with your mind?
Check out the March 2012 Atlantic article, “How your Cat is Making You Crazy.”You also may want to take a look at the article about this article, “Is Your Cat (Literally) Making You Crazy? Dr. Jaroslav Flegr Thinks So.”
Or see the original article published in March, 2012 in the Atlantic magazine. It’s about a Czech biologist named Jaroslav Flegr who theorized that his brain was being affected by parasites carried by his pet cat. Flegr believed that an organism known as T. Gondii, which causes toxoplasmosis, might be affecting unsuspecting cat owners at alarming rates.
The article recalls how Flegr looked at the 30-40% of people who have this latent form of T. Gondii lurking in their brain and noticed slowed reaction times and even differences in personality.
He also noticed that the brains of men and women showed different–sometimes completely opposite–brain changes related to the T. Gondii. For example, the men who were T. Gondii carriers were more suspicious and introverted than uninfected men, while the infected women were more open and extroverted than uninfected women, says the article, “Is Your Cat (Literally) Making You Crazy? Dr. Jaroslav Flegr Thinks So.”
It’s fascinating to look at the actual study The original article, “How your Cat is Making You Crazy” discusses the mental and physical effects of the parasite, which is excreted by cats in their feces, called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii or Toxo for short). The article explains how the microbe causes toxoplasmosis. That’s the reason pregnant women are told to avoid cats’ litter boxes. But you don’t have to be pregnant to get the parasite in your system and have it affect your personality or health.