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Baby brains take the lead in play: Study finds surprising causal link between infants and maternal neural activity

Parent brains mimic baby brains during play, according to a new study. Infants show bursts of high-frequency brain activity when they are playing. In a surprising result, researchers Sam Wass of the University of East London and Victoria Leong of Cambridge University, both in England, found that parents’ brains show similar bursts – taking their cues from the babies.

Neurologically, mother-baby play turns out to be more complex than thought.

Neurologically, mother-baby play turns out to be more complex than thought. Credit: FATCAMERA/GETTY IMAGES

The finding could be an important step in understanding baby brain development, but the researchers concede that their study, published in the journal PLOS Biology, might raise more questions than it answers.

“We don’t know, for example, whether some parents are more responsive to their babies than others – and if so, why,” Leong says.

“And our study just looked at mums, so we don’t know whether mums and dads may be different in how they respond neurally to their babies. Our findings are exciting, but there is a lot more to investigate about how, exactly, this type of neural responsiveness by parents may help young children to learn.”

The team took dual electroencephalography (EEG) readings from 12-month-old infants during solo play, and from babies and mothers during joint play. The theta power of the EEG readings, which indicate cerebral activity, tracked the infants’ attention.

In addition to the finding that parent brains’ mimic those of the infants, the study also showed that the more responsive the parental brain is, the longer the baby can maintain attention.

“We know that, when an adult plays jointly together with a child, this helps the child to sustain attention to things,” says Wass.

“But until now we haven’t really understood why this is. Our findings suggested that, when a baby pays attention to things, the adult’s brain tracks and responds to her infant’s looking behaviour – as if her infant’s actions are echoed in the parent’s brain activity.”

The study more accurately reflects real-world baby learning than some previous studies, the authors suggest, but there is much more to explore.

“Most infants spend the majority of their waking hours in the company of others. But almost everything we know about early learning in the brain comes from studies looking at individual baby brains in isolation,” Wass says.


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