According to a new study, even before they learn to babble, babies are able to pick up on 'non-verbal' signals we use to communicate, such as the eyebrows being raised by a smile to indicate friendship. Researchers in London found that babies use the same brain regions that adults do when they look at the gaze of another, a foundation for social interactions that appears critical for social development and might go wrong in conditions such as autism. ''We are not claiming it could diagnose autism - merely that it may prove a useful early warning signal,'' added Prof Johnson.
''The main goal of my work is to understand the brain mechanisms that underlie typical (healthy) social development. But, I still hope that once we understand healthy development better, we can use this knowledge to look into what might go awry in neurodevelopmental disorders,'' said researcher Mark Johnson from University of London.
The research shows that infants are interested in faces and newborn babies not only prefer to look at faces that have open eyes, but also exhibit a strong tendency to attend to faces that engage them in mutual gaze as compared to averted gaze.
It has been argued that an early sensitivity to eye gaze serves as a major foundation for later development of social skills and insensitivity to where another is looking could be an early sign of disorders such as autism.
For the study, four-month-old infants took part in two scenarios in which a face either established mutual gaze or averted its gaze, both of which were followed by an eyebrow raise with an accompanying smile.
The team studied the blood oxygenation of the infant brain, as measured by near infra red light and also by a net of electrical sensors in a method called EEG that picks up brain waves.
They show that a gaze activates parts of the cortex, the rind of the brain, where the equivalent job of monitoring gazes is done by adults (the temporal and prefrontal 0cortex).
Studies in other labs already show that toddlers with autism have difficulty making eye contact. Another researcher Dr Grossman says that future work will focus on how important this aspect of development is for social skills.