How can a scientist explore the brain of a baby who is still unable to speak nor follow any instruction? This is the big challenge encountered by researchers at the Birkbeck Babylab in London. In the first two years, an infant’s brain undergoes more changes than at any later time in life. While consciousness, personality, temperament and skills are developing, the first signs that something could go wrong can also be detected. This crucial period is the most difficult to study because many of the standard tools used in neuroscience are unusable.

Do you know any baby who would be ready to stay still in an MRI machine, answer your questions or do what you want them to do? Scientists at the Babylab developed a series of sophisticated new techniques that have shown, for example, that babies tend to look more at human faces that are looking directly at them than at faces looking away from them. Such gaze experiments led to the important conclusion that, far from being blank slates as assumed by many people and even experts in the past, newborns have an innate sense of numbers and human faces, and can distinguish their mother’s native language, amid other amazing abilities.

Picture: At Babylab, scientists monitor electrical activity in an infant’s brain (Wes Fernandes / Nature)