Early development matters. Globally.

Fresh from the Lab: Sarah Lloyd-Fox on how to make psychological research less WEIRD.

This week for our #freshfromthelab column, we are going to talk about Sarah Lloyd-Fox's ground-breaking work in the Gambia, within the framework the BRIGHT project (BRain Imaging for Global HealTh).

Sarah Lloyd-Fox.

Sarah is one of the world's leading experts on fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy), which she applies to the study of social development in infants. fNIRS is a relatively inexpensive, non-invasive, easily transportable technique for measuring oxygen changes associated with neural activity in the brain. In other words, it allows researchers to see what happens in certain areas of the brain while participants do different things. Instead of being huge and expensive like an MRI scanner, it's light and "cheap" (well, in a high-tech sort of universe). This makes it wonderfully suited to test babies and to test in naturalistic environment rather than strictly controlled lab settings.

We care deeply about Sarah's work, as it is part of an important new impulse to get beyond our WEIRD science (an acronym coined by Henrich and colleagues to refer to science based on participants samples that are mostly Western, Educated from Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic countries), to broaden our horizons and become truly global. This allows us not only to learn more about the human brain and its development, but also to work at interventions that can be truly useful in different parts of the world.

We love this approach so much that we have started collaborating with Sarah and many other researchers on a Global Mental Health project lead by the CBCD, with Babybrains due to join the MRC research station in Keneba within the year (more about it soon).

It was so interesting to hear how Sarah and her colleagues started off with the first phase of their grant from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Their goal was to figure out what happens in the brain of undernourished infants and to come up with a way of supporting their brain development.

As it often happens in research (and in life), one starts off with a question and - instead of an answer - one ends up with many more questions that they will need to answer before they can even begin to tackle the original point. The first thing Sarah and her colleagues did was begin systematic data collection on infant brain development. Nobody had ever done that before in sub-saharan Africa. Doing so proved to be a great task, as challenges were painstaking, like getting the equipment to the villages without damaging it on the bumpy roads. Once researchers and equipment get there safely, testing needed to be carried out in circumstances that are extremely different from our super-controlled WEIRD labs.

It’s important to note that the living conditions are also incredibly different from London! For instance, few people escape undernourishment -- 25% of children are severely undernourished, 50% are moderately undernourished and 25% are mildly undernourished. Families tend to be polygamous with as many as 150 family members living together in one compound. Tables, toys, and screens are not present...let alone fNIRS caps!

The research project involves neuroimaging methods and a host of other measures, such as the NBAS scale, the Mullen Scales for early Learning, and a large battery of questionnaires for the parents. Phase 1 has been completed successfully. The team has expanded and Phase 2 is well underway. Loads of interesting data are still being collected, hugely in part by Gambian people. The project will contribute to a much better understanding of infant development in the Gambia and around the world.

Sarah and her colleagues have a wonderful website and can be followed on twitter @bright_project. We will be sure to keep you posted from the lab and from field in the Gambia when we get there!

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