Review: Development of Structure and Function in the Infant Brain

On twitter I came across the following article posted by Maria Page. The article is ‘Development of Structure and Function in the Infant Brain: Implications for cognition, language and social behaviour’ by Paterson and colleagues and freely available here. Since developmenal processes in the infant brain are integral to many aspects of the adult brain I thought this was a very interesting article for consideration of both the infant and adult brain. In the abstract, the authors state that

This paper aims to provide an overview of four domains that ahve been studied using techniques amneable to elucidating the brain/behaviour interface: language, face processing, object permanence and joint attention, with particular emphasis on studies focusing on early development

On reading the paper I wasn’t able to identify a methodology section although this isn’t always used in review papers. I was impressed however by the highly structured layout of the paper and the abundance of interesting ideas resulting from consideration of overlap of different methodological approaches and research findings.

In the introductory section, the authors discuss the importance of considering multiple lines of evidence in producing an understanding of the relationship between mind and brain during the developmental process. They identify a number of established and emerging imaging techniques of varying degrees of temporal and spatial resolution. They discuss briefly some of the findings on the sequence of myelination of different brain regions. They also consider the use of examination of changes in neuropsychological function with time in providing part of the necessary information to answer the questions posed. The subsection on the relationship between brain and social behaviour is slightly more complex and it will be interesting so see how this develops as the nature of social behaviour and related phenomenon (e.g social cognition) become better characterised.

I found the section on auditory processing to be particularly useful with the findings from electrophysiological studies providing interesting findings. Some of these findings are further supported by functional and structural neuroimaging studies. The section on the planum temporale reminded me of some of the discussion used in Crow’s theory of schizophrenia. In the section of face processing, the authors provide evidence that this occurs in subcortical structures in early development and then switches to other networks identified in adult studies. I was intrigued as to whether some of the findings of face processing in infants were confounded by the changes in general aspects of visual processing between 6 and 12 months although these will have most likely been controlled within the studies.

In the test of object permanence I was intrigued by the description of the experimental paradigm as this was similar to aspects of a classic ‘theory of mind’ task in which the child must discern where an object is hidden but in doing so must anticipate where fictional characters have placed the objects. In this discussion of a more basic task, the authors emphasise that this is a test of short-term memory (STM) and is used in the assessment of cognitive impairment. Again the ‘theory of mind’ tasks will no doubt have controlled for cognitive impairment although I must admit I haven’t thought specifically about STM in my previous reading of these studies. The EEG findings in the frontal cortex I thought were also interesting. I found it trickier to interpret the findings in the section on attention other than to note that they focus on visual and auditory pathways. Could these be more generally described as perceptual rather than attention pathways?

The authors then integrate the material in their general discussion. While the paper is from 2006 and there will have been many advances in understanding of the topics discussed here, an integration of findings from multiple lines of evidence offers the opportunity of triangulation and the possibility of identifying more robust assumptions for model building. Another interesting aspect of this paper was that the authors have considered not just a static model of the relationship between mind, behaviour and brain but a dynamic one introducing a temporal course to the proceedings. This makes it not only more complex but also more aligned to the reality of the changes that occur during the course of child development and beyond. To assume for instance that the adult brain should be considered a static structure would be a mistake as the transition to old age occurs.

This is a complex and interesting way of looking at the relationship between mind, behaviour and brain and it will be useful to reinterpret some aspects of this paper in light of more recent advances in imaging.


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The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


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