Newborns’ brains are more adult-like than previously thought, study finds

3 Mar 2020

Image: © lalalululala/

Researchers have scanned the brains of newborns in a bid to understand the fundamental question of where knowledge comes from.

Children as young as six days old appear to be hardwired for specialised tasks such as seeing faces and places, according to new research from Emory University. Publishing its findings to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research team provided the earliest peek yet into the visual cortex of newborns using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

“We’ve shown that a baby’s brain is more adult-like than many people might assume,” said Frederik Kamps, who led the study.

“Much of the scaffolding for the human visual cortex is already in place, along with the patterns of brain activity, although the patterns are not as strong compared to those of adults.”

Understanding how an infant’s brain is organised may help answer questions for when something goes wrong, the team said.

Senior author of the study, Daniel Dilks, said an example of this would be if the face network in a newborn’s visual cortex was not well connected, potentially being a biomarker for disorders associated with an aversion to eye contact.

“By diagnosing the problem earlier, we could intervene earlier and take advantage of the incredible malleability of the infant brain,” Dilks said.

‘New frontier in neuroimaging’

A total of 30 infants, ranging in age from six days to 57 days, participated in the experiments while sleeping. During scanning, they were wrapped in an inflatable ‘super swaddler’ – a bag-like device that serves as a stabiliser while also making the baby feel secure.

Kamps said fMRI data from a newborn is a “new frontier in neuroimaging”. “The scanner is like a giant camera and you need the participant’s head to be still in order to get high quality images. A baby that is asleep is a baby that’s willing to lie still,” he said.

24 adults were also scanned in a resting state to act as controls. The results showed the two regions of the visual cortex associated with face processing fired in sync in the infants, as did the two networks associated with places.

The infant patterns were similar to those of the adult participants, although not quite as strong.

“That finding suggests that there is room for these networks to keep getting fine-tuned as infants mature into adulthood,” Kamps said.

The team now wants to see how and when the face networks and place networks become fully developed.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic