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Families needed for $1.8m UEA study on early brain development

Researchers at the University of East Anglia are looking for families to take part in a major project studying brain development in children.

Prof John Spencer, of UEA’s School of Psychology, has been awarded $1.8m by the US National Institutes of Health to examine the development of a type of working memory called visual working memory (VMM), which is central to forming a rich understanding of the visual world.

Working memory has been dubbed the heart of intelligent behaviour, and a core element of this cognitive system is its highly limited capacity – humans can only actively hold a few items in mind at once.

These limitations are associated with individual differences in other types of cognition, for example, language and mathematical abilities, and working memory problems have been observed in at-risk populations, including children diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, and children born prematurely.

Previous research has shown that VWM develops dramatically between infancy and five years of age. To understand why at-risk children show working memory deficits, a key goal of the study is to test how capacity changes over time using structural and functional brain measures.

Understanding the development of working memory capacity limits has far-reaching implications and may be critical to developing innovative ways to improve working memory abilities with at-risk children that address individual differences in both brain and behaviour.

Prof Spencer said: “Measuring early brain development in infants can be predictive of function later in life. If we can understand how these processes work, we might be able to develop early interventions with at-risk children, and prevent problems before they happen. This study will be the first to track working memory capacity as it emerges using innovative brain imaging technologies.”

This study is part of a larger multi-national research project that is examining high risk infants in India and premature infants in the US. Prof Spencer said the work conducted in Norfolk could therefore have a dramatic impact on the development of children worldwide.

The five-year study, which is due to start in December, will involve 60 children aged four to six months and 60 children aged 28 to 30 months. Children will complete a home visit, two non-invasive brain imaging sessions at the School of Psychology’s Developmental Dynamics Laboratory, and one at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. The children will also visit the lab next year and the year after for follow-up sessions to study how brain activity changes as children develop.

For more information about the ‘brain measures' study and to take part contact the Developmental Dynamics Laboratory on 01603 597376 or at child.scientist@uea.ac.uk

Image: iStock/BlackJack3D

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