Research

The CIMeC BabyLab and Neonatal Neuroimaging Unit study infant cognition since the first hours of life and through infancy.

Among neuroscientists and developmental psychologists, it has always been discussed whether our brain/mind structure relies more on the phylogenetic contribution of human kind evolution or on the specific influence of the life experiences we make. To find an answer is no easy: we know that our brain develops slowly and it shows great plasticity properties, however it has also been proved that there are some advanced cognitive abilities that are present since birth. Indeed there are shreds of evidence proving that infants show behaviors comparable to adults ones (for example fast and automatic face perception).

In addition to understanding what these competencies are and how they develop over time, one of the biggest challenges is to understand whether these cognitive functions rely on the same neural networks in adults and infants. Indeed nowadays the origin of the functional specialization of the brain is still unknown: is it econded in our genes or does it emerge over time in relation to the experience we make? 

In our lab, we try to answer these questions by investigating the infants' brains with both behavioral and neuroimaging studies

Main topics

Social cognition

We study the brain responses to social stimuli, like faces, direct gaze, and biological motion, from birth to infancy.

Our main interest is to understand whether the brain areas activated by these stimuli are the early precursor of the so-called "social brain" existing in adult age. 

Moreover, we are collaborating with a research team of the University of Padua on a research project on early markers for neurodevelopmental disorders as for example autism spectrum disorder.

Here you can find our publications. 

Number cognition

We study how the infants' brain responds to numerical information and how it deals with them differently over development.  

At the moment we are investigating the ability to compare numerical information across different sensory modalities (for example hearing 4 syllables while looking at 12 or 4 dots). 

We are also investigating the Space - Number Association (left/small and right/large), which have been founded also in newborns, to discovers its neural bases and how it changes with formal education. 

Here you can find our publications. 

Language Development

We study child brain development, starting from pre-school age, in relation to the acquisition of the sophisticated cognitive and sensory capacities that underlie learning to read.
The main goal of our research is to understand the neurobiological basis of dyslexia and in particular if there are brain and cognitive alterations, linked to the familiarity for dyslexia, which can predict in advance the reading learning disorders that will arise with schooling.
For this purpose, we mainly use the magnetic resonance technique, available at the dedicated center of the University of Trento and equipped for pediatric studies, which allows us to acquire detailed information on the structure and function of the brain.

Here you can find our publications.

Techniques

Behavioral studies

Behavioral studies are suitable for different ages and can be adapted to different subjects' needs. 

Young subjects are normally tested with eye-tracking studies, as gaze behavior is one of the few manifest behaviors that humans show since birth. We observe how babies react to different stimuli presentations, which are normally images or short movies. The most used paradigms are preferential looking and violations of expectations: the baby's gaze behavior is analyzed to study how he reacts to either familiar or novel stimuli after a short period of habituation. 

Older children, instead, can be more actively engaged in more complex studies. By using games, as for example cards, small toys, and videogames, it is possible to infer their cognitive processes by analyzing the choices and the strategies they use to play.

These kinds of studies are particularly indicated to follow babies' development as they can be easily adapted and replicated with subjects at different ages to understand better how the mind and the brain change over time. 

Neuroimaging studies

We use both Electroencephalography (EEG) and functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) as not-invasive neuroimaging techniques to study the infants' brain. 

EEG measures directly the brain activity by recording the neurons' electrical signal thanks to electrodes applied on the scalp. The EEG system available at CIMeC in the Baby Lab and in the Neonatal Neuroimaging Unit is specifically designed for pediatric studies: the electrodes are covered by soft sponges, soaked in saline solution (completely safe for skin contact), and the montage is fast and comfortable

fNIRS measures indirectly the brain activity by recording the BOLD signal (Blood Oxygenation Level-Dependent). The spectroscopy is particularly suitable for babies as it simply requires to wear a soft cup without any kind of preparation needed

For both the techniques we are using Frequency - Tagging designs, as it has been demonstrated to provide the optimal signal-to-noise ratio in young subjects.