Your baby’s brain is an orchestra

Updated: Sep 20, 2019

Interview with Chiara Bulgarelli, PhD student at the CBCD, Birkbeck.

At Babybrains, we support science in all possible ways. This includes bringing our own children to the lab to be tested. A few months ago, at the Babylab at Birkbeck, we met PhD student, Chiara Bulgarelli. She is using the most advanced neurotechniques to study the social development of the infant brain. We are so grateful that she made some time to answer our questions about her fascinating research area.

Doing science is fun. Chiara and Silvia's son in the BabyLab at Birkbeck.

Babybrains: What is your most exciting finding so far?

Chiara Bulgarelli: Eye contact! I am going to a big psychology conference in Vienna in a few weeks and I am glad to present some interesting data about eye contact being an important modulator in connectivity between brain regions involved in mimicry. This is the case already in the first year of life. We showed that, when babies look at facial expression performed with eye gaze directed to them or directed away from them, different brain networks in the babies’ brains are activated. These results support the idea that gaze is a non-verbal invitation to social contact and reciprocity from really early in life. Babies love eye contact. Parents, be aware of how you talk and communicate with your babies, pay attention to important non-talkative cues! If you talk to baby while looking at your phone you are sending a very different message than if you talk to your baby while making eye contact.

Babybrains: Can you tell us a little bit more about your own research field?

Chiara Bulgarelli: I study how brain connectivity develops over the first three years of life. In fact, our brain is not an aggregation of single areas that light up singularly. Our brain is an orchestra where areas do not play solo, but often in harmony with other areas. How interesting is that this is true from when we are really really young? I am curious about investigating how different areas ‘talk’ to each other, creating a network. I want to know what happens to these ‘brain networks’ when babies interact with other people. To learn a little more about this, I recommend this TED Talk by Danielle Bassett, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania.

In particular, I study how brain connectivity develops in relation to important social skills that arise during the first years of life, such as mimicry and theory of mind. Mimicry is an unconscious tendency to copy others. We know that infants are able to do this from the first months of life, mostly with their own mother. Theory of mind is the understanding that others might have different intentions and believes than what we have (see also Babybrains’ previous post on the topic). I hypothesise that developments of these social skills are all interconnected. I aim to show the maturation of different brain network in support of these skills. You can find more on my CBCD profile.

Babybrains: What is your favourite method?

Chiara Bulgarelli: My favourite method for studying the developing brain is functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). fNIRS shines weak rays of light into the head and measures the colour of the light reflected back. We know that when a brain area is engaged, it attracts blood with oxygen, and that oxygenated blood is brighter that the deoxygenated blood. Measuring how light is differently absorbed by brain areas, we can then infer whether that specific brain region is activated or not under specific stimulation.

fNIRS is fun!!

This cool system allows us to ‘test’ babies when they are awake and they can move, usually we put this funny hat on babies while they are watching something on the television or are doing some specific activity. All of this was not possible until a few years ago with the only use of the magnetic resonance, where images of babies’ brains can be acquired just when they are asleep. With the use of this new technique we can investigate the engaging of different brain regions in relation to different social situations. How cool is that?

Haemodynamic Response. That's what fNIRS results look like. (From Southgate et al., 2014).

The method is non-invasive. Babies can sit on their parent’s lap for the whole testing session, and we see that usually infants and toddlers are pretty happy with it!

We always need more participants at the BabyLab, and several teams are constantly running studies that cover different age ranges--from newborns to toddlers, but even school-age children. If you think your little one can contribute to science, please do not hesitate to visit our website and sign up for our database.

Babybrains: What is the one thing you have learned in your studies that no parent should ignore?

Chiara Bulgarelli: Variability. It is good that parents are interested in learning about development psychology, but do not be stressed out by standards. Bear in mind how difficult is to take into account all the individual variability of babies around the world when you have to condensate developing behaviour in just one number. What I have learned during my studies, and mainly in my daily practice with infants, is that there is a huge variability in development. In research, we work to build theories and standards to understand what is going on while infants and children develop. However, we have to keep in mind that we are dealing with humans. Each one different to the others. Yes, there are standards that reflect what most of the infants usually achieve at a specific time point. This really just means that there are subjects scattered all over around that theoretical middle point. Moreover, we need to think about how complicated and diverse the first years of life are. Babies learn so many things. They are exposed to so many new stimuli and they practice so many new skills every day. They cannot excel at all of it at the same time! They could be amazing walkers, but take a little bit more time to learn how to talk. Maybe they can name the colours at two, but struggle with jumping. It’s fine! Just enjoy all the positive achievements and goals with your baby. The rest will follow naturally most of the time. Our little ones are individuals, not robots!

Babybrains: Is there a parenting book or website you would recommend?

Chiara Bulgarelli: I would suggest the book NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman to all the parents of children with autism, but also to all the parents who embrace the idea of diversity. It suggests resources to make the most out of diversity.

Yet another scientist telling us to rejoice in our children's unicity! If you would like to try but you are not quite sure about how to do so, why not test the FREE Babybrains® app? In a fun and interactive way, you will learn how to read your baby's cues and make the most of all your interactions. Coming out soon! Get in touch if you would like to be one of the Babybrains Pioneers!

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