Infants use prefrontal cortex for learning, study finds

By Ryan Maass  |  Oct. 6, 2016 at 10:11 AM
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PROVIDENCE, R.I., Oct. 6 (UPI) -- Infants may begin using their prefrontal cortex earlier than previously believed, according to a study conducted by Brown University scientists.

Researchers have traditionally considered the prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for higher cognitive activity, to be too underdeveloped in young children. However, a study involving 8-month-old infants suggests this may not be the case.

In the study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, babies were tasked with learning simple hierarchical rules. Researchers observed the infants employed many of the same circuits to complete those tasks as adults do. Senior study author Dima Amso says their findings may mean the prefrontal cortex in an infant is not necessarily less developed, but rather adjusting to a different environment.

"The wow factor isn't 'Look the PFC works," Amso said in a press release. "It's that what seems to be happening is that its function is a really good fit for what these babies need to be mastering at that moment in their development."

The research team came to their conclusion after testing 37 babies in a bilingual scenario. The babies were placed in front of screens, which showed a face and then an image of a toy. The task was to determine which words were associated with which person, effectively testing two sets of vocabulary. Researchers measured their responses by tracking brain activity and eye blinks.

Brown University scientists say their study changes the conventional understanding of neurodevelopment.

"Atypical development, then, might reflect an inability to adapt to an environmental challenge, or an earlier adaptation because of a negative environment," Amso added. "We and others are probing with these ideas as relevant to PFC development."

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