Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Research on Infant Brains

Psychologist Eugene Goldfield at the Center for Behavioral Science at Children’s Hospital in Boston, along with a team of engineers and scientists at the Wyss Institute at Harvard, are in the early stages of a research project to help infants with early brain injuries learn to move like other infants. This data was reported in the National Science Foundation’s FY 2011-2016 Strategic Plan.

Goldfield calls the smart clothing developed by the researchers a “second skin” where tiny sensors and programmable muscle-like actuators within the material are designed to detect the motions of the limbs and then small forces are added to expand the range of motion to increase the wearer’s ability to produce the motions.

Data obtained from studying the motions of babies will be programmed into the “second skin” with the aid of computer simulation so that actuators can provide the right kind of assistance. The expanded range of motion may provide new sensory information to promote restoration of brain function.

The research is being conducted with infants because the infant brain when injured has a remarkable capability for restoration of function, according to Goldfield. If the research proves to be successful, this technology could also be applied to others with mobility impairments, including children and adults with brain injuries, the aging population, and soldiers that are injured in combat.

In another research project at Children’s Hospital in Boston, a computational physicist and cognitive neuroscientist are studying the beginnings of a noninvasive test that will be able to evaluate an infant’s autism risk. The test if used would combine the standard electroencephalogram (EEG), to record electrical activity in the brain, along with machine-learning algorithms. In a pilot study, the system being studied has obtained 80 percent accuracy in distinguishing between 9 month old infants known to be at high risk for autism from controls of the same age.

The test will be a safe and practical way to identify infants at high risk for developing autism by capturing very early differences in brain organization and function. Parents would be able to begin behavioral interventions one to two years before autism can be diagnosed today through traditional behavioral testing.

William Bosl, PhD, a Neuroinformatics Researcher in the Children’s Hospital Informatics Program, and Charles A. Nelson PhD, Research Director of the Developmental Medicine Center at Children’s plus several colleagues have recorded resting EEG signals from 79 babies 6 to 24 months of age participating in the large study aimed at finding very early risk makers of autism.

Forty six of these infants had an older sibling with a confirmed diagnosis of ASD, while the other 33 infants had no family history of ASDs. Bosl hopes to follow the high risk group over time and compare EEG patterns in those who received an actual ASD diagnosis but who appear to be developing normally and then compare both groups to the controls. “With enough data, I would like to follow each child’s whole trajectory from 6 to 24 months since the trend over time may be more important than a value at any particular age.” said Bosl.