Stories about: Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience

EEG patterns diverge in babies of stressed mothers

Study of newborn EEG and maternal stress
A study in JAMA Pediatrics assessed new mothers’ stress levels and EEG patterns in their 2-month-old babies. Such patterns could help flag infants at risk.(PHOTO: EMILY REILLY / BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL)

Does exposure to stress early in life affect a baby’s brain development, and is there a way to single out babies who might benefit from early intervention? A two-center study led by Boston Children’s Hospital, published today in JAMA Pediatrics, used brain EEGs to begin to get at these questions in an objectively measurable way. It found that infants whose mothers reported high levels of stress have a distinct pattern of brain activity as measured by EEG — at only 2 months of age.

“The EEG has been found to be exquisitely sensitive to perturbations in the environment, and thus we are not entirely surprised to see an association between stress in a mother’s life and her infant’s brain activity,” says Charles Nelson, PhD, director of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital and the study’s senior investigator. “What we were surprised by, in part, was how early in life we see this association.”

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Children raised in institutions have impaired memory and executive functioning at age 16

long-term effects of child institutionalization

An estimated 8 million children worldwide live in institutions where they experience neglect and deprivation. Last fall, a study of children reared in Romanian orphanages reported high levels of mental health problems when they reached adolescence. In particular, they had more difficult behaviors such as rule-breaking, excessive arguing with authority figures, stealing or assaulting peers. But if they were placed early with carefully vetted foster families through the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) , these problems were reduced.

A new BEIP study, published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined cognitive functioning. It found that institutionalized children, at ages 8 and 16, also have impaired memory and executive functioning compared with peers placed early in foster homes.

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When neglected children enter adolescence: A cautionary tale about family separation

child neglect / child deprivation
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Many migrant children separated from their parents at the U.S. border, some of them very young, have landed in shelters where they often experience stress, neglect and minimal social and cognitive stimulation. The latest findings of the long-running Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), involving children in Romanian orphanages, tells a cautionary tale about the psychiatric and social risks of long-term deprivation and separation from parents.

BEIP has shown that children reared in very stark institutional settings, with severe social deprivation and neglect, are at risk for cognitive problems, depression, anxiety, disruptive behavior and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. But BEIP has also shown that placing children with quality foster families can mitigate some of these effects, if it’s done early.

The new BEIP study, published this week by JAMA Psychiatry, asked what happens to the mental health of institutionalized children as they transition to adolescence. Outcomes at ages 8, 12 and 16 suggest diverging trajectories between children who remained in institutions versus those randomly chosen for placement with carefully vetted foster families.

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Diagnosing autism in infants? EEG algorithms make accurate predictions

autism EEGs
EEG nets are easily slipped over an infant’s head and cause no discomfort. (Credit: Nelson Lab)

The earlier autism can be diagnosed, the more effective interventions typically are. But the signs are often subtle or can be misinterpreted at young ages. As a result, many children aren’t diagnosed until age 2 or even older. Now, a study shows that electroencephalograms (EEGs), which measure the brain’s electrical activity, can accurately predict or rule out autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in babies as young as 3 months old. It appears today in Scientific Reports.

The beauty of EEG is that it’s already used in many pediatric neurology or developmental pediatric settings. “EEGs are low-cost, non-invasive and relatively easy to incorporate into well-baby checkups,” says study co-author Charles Nelson, PhD, director of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Their reliability in predicting whether a child will develop autism raises the possibility of intervening very early, well before clear behavioral symptoms emerge.”

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When you talk to your baby, does his heart rate change? The answer could relate to his autism risk

heart rate autism - NIRS study
The researchers used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which measures blood oxygen levels in the brain. They then applied their own algorithm to calculate heart rate from the data. (Image courtesy Katherine Perdue)

When infants see or hear something interesting to them, like the sound of a human voice, their heart rate tends to slow down ever so slightly, a sign they’re paying attention. But a recent small study suggests this may not be true for infants at risk for autism.

Researchers led by Katherine Perdue, PhD, of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital, studied 40 babies who had an older sibling with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These “baby sibs” are at 20-fold risk for developing autism themselves. For comparison, Perdue and colleagues also studied 48 infants who did not have a sibling with ASD and were therefore at low risk for autism.

At 3, 6, 9 and 12 months of age, the at-risk infants had slower heartbeats than the low-risk infants. When the babies were presented with speech sounds, heart rates slowed less in the at-risk babies than in the low-risk infants.

While none of the at-risk infants, followed until age 2, were later diagnosed with ASD, the researchers believe they may still be at risk for problems such as delayed speech. This may be due to differences in auditory processing. “It might not be autism per se, but it could be something that’s related to communication in some way,” Perdue told Spectrum News.

Read more directly on Spectrum News or in the original paper. For information on enrolling in one of the Labs’s studies, visit their participant registry.

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A 30-minute screening test for dyslexia?

dyslexia screening test
A dyslexia screening app in development could flag children at risk as early as age 4, when interventions are most effective.

Ten to 12 percent of school-aged children have dyslexia. It’s typically diagnosed in second or third grade, only after a child has struggled unsuccessfully at reading. As Nadine Gaab, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital puts it, diagnosis is primarily based upon a “wait-to-fail-approach.” And that comes along with considerable psychological damage and stigma.

“Late diagnosis of dyslexia very often leads to low self-esteem, depression and antisocial behavior,” she says. A much better time to look for early signs of dyslexia would be kindergarten or first grade. With early intervention, many children can attain an average reading ability.

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For dyslexia, writing is often on the wall from birth

Writing on the wall-shutterstock_345548735-croppedSome 5 to 17 percent of all children have developmental dyslexia, or unexplained reading difficulty. When a parent has dyslexia, the odds jump to 50 percent. Typically, though, dyslexia isn’t diagnosed until the end of second grade or as late as third grade — when interventions are less effective and self-esteem has already suffered.

“It’s a diagnosis that requires failure,” says Nadine Gaab, PhD, an investigator in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience.

But a new study led by Gaab and lab members Nicolas Langer, PhD, and Barbara Peysakhovich finds that the writing is on the wall as early as infancy — if only there were a way to read it and intervene before the academic, social and emotional damage is done.

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Early adversity and the brain: Bangladeshi children may provide lessons

neuroimaging adversity Bangladesh
Children from the neighborhood around the neuroimaging lab

Dhaka, Bangladesh, is a megacity, one of the world’s fastest growing. By 2025, the U.N. predicts, Dhaka will be home to more than 20 million people as rural migrants swell its population. Many residents live in extreme poverty, crowded into dense, hot, chaotic slums with open sewers and corrugated housing.

While traditional global health programs have focused on curbing infectious disease, low-resource settings like Dhaka are also coming to be seen as “living laboratories” for investigating how adversity affects children’s brain development. Last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded a two-year, $2.5 million grant to Charles Nelson, PhD, to bring the first fully equipped neuroimaging facility to Bangladesh.

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Music and auditory skills can hone cognition and language

It may seem counterintuitive that your ability to tell different sounds apart would have anything to do with your ability to read or handle cognitive challenges. But that’s exactly what the lab of Nadine Gaab, PhD, has been showing.

Gaab discussed the research during a recent Longwood Seminar on Music as Medicine at Harvard Medical School:

The Gaab Lab has amassed an impressive body of work showing that auditory processing impairments correlate with developmental dyslexia, and that people who can detect tiny differences between sounds seem to do better both as musicians and as readers.

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Does musical training help kids do better in school?

music and executive functionMy daughter just surprised me by signing up for fifth grade band starting this fall. To my further delight, some new research—using both cognitive testing and brain imaging—suggests that as she practices her clarinet, she also may be honing her executive functions.

Like a CEO who’s on top of her game, executive functions—separate from IQ—are those high-level brain functions that enable us to quickly process and retain information, curb impulsive behaviors, plan, make good choices, solve problems and adjust to changing cognitive demands. While it’s already clear that musical training relates to cognitive abilities, few previous studies have looked at its effects on executive functions specifically.

The study, appearing this week in PLOS ONE, compared children with and without regular musical training, as well as adults. To the researchers’ knowledge, it’s the first such study to use functional MRI (fMRI) of brain areas associated with executive function and to adjust for socioeconomic factors.

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