firstname.lastname@example.orgGrowth, Development and Metabolism Programme
Why do some children excel at school whilst others struggle? What are the basic neurocognitive abilities that underlie academic success, disorders disruptive to academic achievement, and well-being during the school years? How early can we identify predictive neurocognitive abilities? And, ultimately, how and when should we intervene?
At the Neurocognitive Development Centre we focus upon brain and cognitive development, especially in early infancy and childhood. We aim to understand why children differ with regards to abilities such as memory, attention, and learning. In particular, we are interested not only in understanding how extreme experiences and states such as prenatal depression, impaired fetal growth, poverty, and malnutrition may impact the developing brain, but also the degree to which more "everyday" risks may have an effect. For example, to what extent do “prenatal blues”, comparatively low parental income and education, sub-optimal maternal or infant nutrition, and insensitive or subtly frightening parenting influence the way our brains develop?
We also hope to learn whether risk factors such as these are particularly influential at certain times of development, and whether they preferentially impact certain cognitive abilities over others.
To answer these questions we use non-invasive age appropriate tasks and methodologies including electrophysiology, computerized tasks, eye-tracking, and behavioral observation.
A main goal of the Neurocognitive Development Centre is to become a resource for Singaporean child developmental researchers and organizations promoting child and familial well-being. As such, we are open and, indeed, eager for collaborations. We also welcome assistance from students hoping to advance their research experience and knowledge.
In fact, our current research focus involves a collaborative study GUSTO, Growing Up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes, between A*Star (SICS), NUS, NUH, and KKH. The GUSTO project is longitudinal and involves over 1200 families; women were recruited during pregnancy and are followed until their infants are at least three years of age. As part of the larger GUSTO study, women and their families are routinely asked questions about their stress, mental health, income, nutrition, and care-giving arrangements. Biological samples from which epigenetic and genetic information can be obtained are also gathered. In addition, infant MRI’s are obtained.
In our laboratory we then examine the relation between the information collected as part of the larger study and infant cognitive performance at multiple times in their lives. Currently we are concentrating on testing neonates and six month olds. In the near future we will begin testing 18 month olds as part of this project. At this point, new experiments will be added. To date we utilize the following paradigms:
- Facial Imitation (neonates). Research coordinators travel to KKH and NUH to test neonates typically within their first 24 hours of life. Research coordinators demonstrate two different facial expressions to the infants and their responses are video recorded. Later the degree to which the infants imitate these responses are assessed. Infants ability to imitate may reveal early attention and memory abilities.
- Auditory Oddball (neonates and six month olds). Here infants listen to two different sounds, both common to all of Singapore’s languages. The "standard" is presented 85% of the time; the "oddball" only 15%. While infants listen to these sounds we record their brain activity using electrophysiology. We are especially interested in how their brains differentially respond to the standard and oddball; in past work this individual differences in this differential brain response is associated with language development, attention, and ADHD.
- Relational Binding* (six month olds). Infants, eye movements are recorded whilst they view sets of pictures and listen to paired songs. In the learning stage, they are shown a scene with a toy superimposed on it that is accompanied by a folk song; this is repeated three times—each time a unique scene, toy, and song are presented. Then, in the memory stage, they are shown one of the three prior scenes while its associated prior song is playing; in this memory stage, all three of the previously viewed toys are superimposed on the scene. By analyzing the eye tracker data we can determine whether the infant exhibits memory for the correct (previously viewed) combination as demonstrated by his looking longer at the "correct" toy. This task is widely considered hippocampal dependent and assesses declarative memory.
*Jen Richmond, our collaborator at UNSW, developed the initial use of this task with infants and has used nearly identical paradigms in her work there with infants.
- Visual Expectation* (six month olds). Infants’ eye movements are recorded while they watch video clips appearing on either side of the monitor. At first the clips appear in a random sequence. Then they appear in a pattern (e.g., Right-Right-Left). We use information gathered by our eye tracker to determine whether they anticipate the pattern and thereby exhibit learning and organizational abilities.
*Our collaborators at McGill developed a similar paradigm with identical stimuli in their prior work with infants.
- Deferred Imitation (six month olds). Infants are taught how to remove, shake, and replace a mitten from a puppet's hand. Roughly two hours later they are once again introduced to the puppet and given the chance to demonstrate their memory for the actions. This task is considered to assess similar abilities as facial imitation, but their relation in longitudinal studies has not previously been assessed.
- Habituation (six months old). In this classic cognitive task infants are shown a picture of a stuffed animal. They are free to look away from the picture, and when they do a different image appears on the screen. When they look back, the stuffed animal reappears. This process is continued until the infants look at the picture for only 50% of their previous averaged longest looks. At this point, they are considered "habituated." Then, they are shown the stuffed animal again, along with a novel stuffed animal. The number of trials they take to “habituate”, the length of their looks, and their preference for the novel versus habituated stuffed animal all tells us information about infant learning and their ability to suppress extraneous information.
In addition to these tasks, we also videotape parents interacting and playing with their children. We then use these videotapes as a "window in" to understanding what kind of experiences infants normally have in their daily lives with their caregivers. For example, in collaboration with colleagues at NUS we use these tapes to learn about language, gesture, and attention. We also use these tapes to better understand parenting behaviors relevant to the formation of infant attachment relationships, socio-emotional functioning, and stress regulation.
Finally, in collaboration with researchers at Duke-NUS, KKH, and NUH, as part of this study, Diaz Utama, our graduate student, also examines sleep behavior in infants and their parents.
Prof Michael Meaney
Chong Hui Jun *
Siti Aishah Bte Abdul Rahman
Sam Suet Chian
Sim Lit Wee
Waseem Bak’r Hameed
Suhailah Binte Sapuan
Noor Maya Nasrom
Diaz Adi Utama