In the laboratories of the Henry Wellcome Building at Birkbeck, University of London, children’s squeaky toys lie scattered on the floor. Brightly coloured posters of animals are pasted on the walls and picture books are stacked on the low tables. This is the Babylab — a research centre that experiments on children aged one month to three years, to understand how they learn, develop and think. “The way babies’ brains change is an amazing and mysterious process,” says the lab director, psychologist Mark Johnson. “The brain increases in size by three- to four-fold between birth and teenage years, but we don’t understand how that relates to its function.”
The Birkbeck neuroscientists are interested in finding out how babies recognise faces, how they learn to pay attention to some things and not others, how they perceive emotion and how their language develops. Studies published by the lab have shown that babies prefer to look at faces over objects. They have also found that differences in the dopamine-producing gene can affect babies’ attention span and that at six to eight months of age, there are detectable differences in the brain patterns of babies who were later diagnosed with autism.
The biggest obstacle is designing the right kinds of experiment. “There aren’t many methods for getting inside the mind of an infant or a toddler,” Johnson explains. Graduate students at the Babylab have teamed up with technology companies, using a €1.9 million (£1.7 million) grant from the European Union, to develop tools such as EEG head nets that record electrical brain activity, helmets that use light to measure blood flow in different parts of the brain, and eye-trackers that help study attention. Eventually, they want to create wireless systems so babies can react and play naturally during experiments. But despite the wires, “all our studies are geared towards making sure our babies are contented,” says Johnson. “If we want data, we need happy babies.”