A team of scientists from King’s College London has found a way to manipulate brain activity in newborn babies by hijacking the neural processes that enable infants to learn about their environment. According to the researchers, this approach could lead to new therapies for babies with brain injuries by promoting the formation of healthy connections that may contribute to improved language and motor skills later in life.
Publishing their findings in the journal Cerebral Cortex, the study authors explain how they set out to determine how the newborn brain makes sense of the world outside of the womb. After all, birth is a pretty major milestone in anyone’s life, and coming to terms with all the new sights, sounds and smells that the world has to offer is the top priority on every baby’s to-do list.
In particular, the researchers wanted to understand how the infant brain learns to form associations between different types of stimuli. Previous studies have shown that one-day-old babies can learn to associate certain smells with the sensation of being caressed by their mothers, although it is not clear if this conditioning is driven by primitive reflexes or by more complex cortical processes.
To find out, the study authors used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of 24 babies while they learned to associate the sound of a jingling bell with the sensation of motion. Over a period of 20 minutes, the infants were repeatedly exposed to the sound of the bell for six seconds at a time, while a small robotic device moved their right wrist.
Once the 20 minutes were up, the team jingled bell without moving the babies’ wrists, and found that the mere sound triggered a neural response in the premotor cortex, a part of the brain that plans and prepares for movement.
This is important, as it confirms that the newborn brain is capable of multisensory integration and the formation of memories based on life experiences. By taking advantage of this, the researchers were able to activate a brain region that is associated with motion just by playing a sound.
In a statement, study author Tomoki Arichi said that this method could potentially be used to help babies who are born without the ability to process certain stimuli or coordinate certain actions, by artificially triggering activity in the relevant parts of their brain.
“With our findings it raises the possibility of trying to do something to help with that through targeted stimulation and learning associations,” he explained.
For example, cerebral palsy is a condition that arises out of an inability to correctly process movement in certain brain regions due to injuries suffered at birth. Yet by stimulating the relevant parts of a newborn’s brain through learned associations, it may be possible to activate these processes, potentially leading to life-long improvements in speech, language and movement.
While much more research is needed before any definitive claims regarding the therapeutic applications of this approach can be made, these findings do at least provide new insights into how the infant brain works. This, in turn, gives us a useful starting point for the development of new interventions.