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Body maps develop early in infant brains

Brain

Body maps develop early in life and may be integral for fostering infants’ sense of their own bodies, as well as the ability to connect with and learn from other people, new research has found.

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) are among the first scientists worldwide to study body maps in the infant brain.

The researchers argue that this new area of infant neuroscience can provide crucial information about how babies develop a sense of their physical selves, and further understanding of how their earliest social relationships with others are formed.

“Body maps in the brain are an important part of how we build up an implicit sense of ourselves through the sense of having a body and seeing and feeling our bodies move,” said lead author Peter Marshall, professor of psychology at Temple University.

“We also believe that these maps facilitate the connections that we build with other people, even in the early months of life,” Marshall said.

The new study builds on previous studies conducted by Marshall and co-author Andrew Meltzoff, I-LABS co-director, which studied the properties of body maps in the infant brain.

In one experiment, 7-month-old babies wore caps fitted with sensors that record brain activity by picking up tiny electrical signals from the surface of the head, a method known as electroencephalography, or EEG.

The study found that touches to infants’ hands and feet resulted in different patterns of activity in the part of the brain that processes touch.

The results showed that, much as in adults, the body maps of infants are organised in a particular way, though there is still much to learn about how the details of these maps are established in the developing brain.

Another study using EEG showed that body maps in the infant brain are also activated by seeing other people carrying out actions with different parts of the body.

Fourteen-month-olds were randomly assigned to watch an adult touch an object using either a hand or foot.

The pattern of infants’ brain activity corresponded to the body parts being used, providing the first evidence that watching someone use a specific body part prompts a pattern of activity in the infant neural body map.

The researchers said that this finding may advance understanding of the neural processes underlying imitation, an important means of learning for babies.

“Before language, infants learn many skills and social customs by imitating others. Infants need to map the behaviours they see onto their own bodies in order to imitate,” Meltzoff said.

The findings demonstrate that body maps develop early in life and may be integral for fostering infants’ sense of their own bodies, as well as the ability to connect with and learn from other people.

The study was published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.