Youth researcher discovers how babies’ brains develop

Big difference in brain activity in 5 and 10-month-old babies

One of the most important milestones in the first year of a child's life is its development of social behaviour. But how is this crucial social development in babies achieved? In an article – entitled ‘The emergence of a theta social brain network during infancy’ – published in the NeuroImage journal recently, Bauke van der Velde, a juvenile researcher at Utrecht University, concludes that the developing baby brain focuses on processing social stimuli initially.

Van der Velde, a PhD student affiliated with the YOUth study, studied brain processes in a group of 850 babies aged 5 or 10 months old. Assisted by fellow researchers from Utrecht University, Van der Velde showed the babies two different videos. One video showed someone singing a children's song, while the other showed moving toys. To see the babies’ brain processes, each wore an EEG electrode cap (which looks similar to a bathing cap) while watching the videos.

Primarily visual

In his article, Van der Velde concludes that information exchange takes place primarily in the back of the brain in 5-month-old babies. Van der Velde: ‘This is the part of the brain where visual information is processed: the visual cortex. So, the brain’s main focus is on analysing image material. There is little communication between the social brain regions at the side and front of the brain in babies of this age.’

Brain activity in 5 and 10 month old babies when watching film with person and with toy. Van der Velde: "There is stronger communication, and this communication is between other brain areas."

Intensive communication

Brain activity in the 10-month-old babies studied was very different: there was found to be intensive communication between the brain regions. Van der Velde: ‘This greatly-increased communication between the brain regions is especially noticeable when babies analyse different aspects of social information. This means that 10-month-old babies process videos with people in them differently, probably because of the social nature of these videos.’ 

This is the stage at which babies’ brains are being prepared for society.

Understanding people

Van der Velde’s research shows that, in just a few months, the different regions of the brain start to work together so well that the baby is able to understand human behaviour. Van der Velde: ‘This development in the baby brain is important for babies who will grow up in environments where people constantly send each other a multitude of complex signals. So, this is the stage at which babies’ brains are being prepared for society.’

Van der Velde conducted his research as part of the Utrecht YOUth study, a long-term study on child development that involves a large number of children ranging in age from babies to young adults.