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Nawal Abboub
Nawal est experte en neurosciences.

Cognitive neuroscience to decipher the skills of our babies and support their development.

February 26, 2024
9 minutes

Yes, neuroscience is everywhere and is very popular at the moment, especially in the field of education and has a strong resonance in the world of early childhood. But in the end, what are his objects of study? And above all, why can the knowledge from this field of research inform parents and professionals about the development of very young children? Perhaps the first thing would be to clearly define these concepts that are being talked about so much and to finally explain the link between these two worlds which in the end only speak very little!

1. Neuroscience and the Brain

Does neuroscience only study our brains?

To use the exact definition: neuroscience studies our nervous system! Simply put, is our nervous system limited only to our brain? The answer is no, not only that! Our nervous system is in fact composed of our brain (central nervous system) but also of our brain stem, our spinal cord, and all its nerve endings (peripheral nervous system) ! So neuroscience doesn't just study our brains and minds, but lots of other things! Some neuroscience researchers only work at the nerve cell level. They observe how neurons communicate with each other (synaptic transmission), or how the communication signal is created (action potential). Others are even working on how muscle and nerves communicate with each other, via neuromuscular junctions.

Thus neuroscience includes a A very vast field of research, and some of them don't care much about our mind or our cognition, let alone our learning skills. ! Rather, it is cognitive neuroscience, which is talked about a lot in education and which is a crucial issue in the world of early childhood, rather than neuroscience at all!

2. Cognitive neuroscience and early childhood

How does cognitive neuroscience shed new light on our functioning, that of young children or Babies ?

If cognitive neuroscience is so fashionable, it is because new technologies have offered us a new window to observe our brain !

Some theories have long been the only tools at our disposal. Understanding the biological rules that underlie our learning abilities or even reasoning in young children has long been a challenge for researchers (and still is)! Major methodological difficulties have often blocked the progress of research, in particular by Difficult access to the functioning brain. Especially when it comes to preverbal children or even newborns. But now we have great measurement tools. And every day we unravel the mystery of this black box, especially of this developing brain, capable of doing incredible things but without us fully understanding how ! For example, how do neurons process linguistic (speech) or social (smile) information from birth? Are they already programmed to do that? or do they depend on experience?

By studying cognitive functions from another angle, with so-called “physiological” measures, this gave us another part of the answer. From these measurements we can know a little more precisely in which regions and in how long, is this information processed or not in the brain. Moreover, these answers fascinate us because they touch on what has long been invisible, a bit this hidden part of how babies function.

Indeed, new neuroimaging methods have allowed us to have access to a level of information that we have never had, but what are they?

3. Neuroscience and the functioning of young children

What are the latest advances in cognitive science and particularly in neuroimaging that have allowed us to better measure and decipher the cognitive abilities of young children?

The majority of these neuroimaging methods rely on indirect measurements of brain activity. In other words, thanks to these different methods, we can analyze the level of brain activity and even more so of information processing. There are two types of methods: those that look at blood oxygenation (1) and those that look at the electrical activity of the brain (2). These two techniques make it possible to see the level of brain activity indirectly. In other words, from this measurement we can deduce how the babies' brains react or not according to what we present to them.

(1) The first type of measurement method Where the activity takes place : which regions or networks are involved in the processing of information. This method is based on a principle that is fairly well known now, which tells us that the more a neural network is activated, the more energy and therefore oxygen it consumes. Thanks to this neurophysiological principle (also called neurovascular coupling), we can observe blood overoxygenations that reflect a specific activity of this or these regions. The devices that allow us to take these measurements are for example fMRI1(Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). It is one of the most well known machines to the general public. But a new technique is emerging in research laboratories: NIRS2 (Near Infrared Spectroscopy) which is a bit less well known, but increasingly used to study child development.

(2) The second type of measurement method When the activity takes place : what is the speed of transmission of information. This method is based on measuring the “electrical level” of neurons. Indeed, neurons to communicate with each other receive and transmit signals of an electrical nature. Thanks to this method we can observe how long it takes for information to be processed by the brain and how it is transmitted across different regions. It is said to have a very good temporal resolution. The device that allows us to take these measurements is the EEG (Eletroencephalography), which is widely used in research but also in the clinic.

Thanks to these numerous brain imaging techniques, the brain of young children has revealed its many secrets to us, and in particular that of being much more sophisticated than expected!

4. The secrets of baby brains in the light of neuroscience

How did cognitive neuroscience allow us to discover the invisible and hidden functioning of babies?

  • With MRI and NIRS

Founding and very well known experiences allowed us to discover that The brains of very young babies, 2 days old, were nowhere near as immature and disorganized ! Indeed, research has shown us that the baby is already capable to analyze finely Of Language sounds And that they were preferentially treated on the left. This activation profile surprised scientists a lot because they looked strangely similar to those that had been observed in adults. 3—7. These results showed us that the brains of very young children were already organized to process things as complex as human speech!

Dehaene-Lambertz & Spelke, Neuron, 2015.

This is part of the reason why children learn a language so quickly, because their brains are already equipped with powerful tools to do so from birth! So let's talk to them from birth, their brain is equipped to!

  • With the EEG

Further research8 revealed to us that the speed of information processing in babies was relatively different than in adults! We discovered that to process visual information like a face, in adults it took an average of 300 ms (about 1/3s) while it takes three times as much for a 5-month-old infant (about 1s)! Their neural networks are in the process of “maturing” to have optimal processing speed as they develop.

This is part of the reason why very young children have slower reaction times than adults. Let's take our time and synchronize our rhythms with that of our babies! As time goes by, this reaction time will be reduced to become faster and faster.

In conclusion, cognitive neuroscience has allowed us to access the functioning of the brain of babies and young children and allows us to understand it even better! This knowledge is a treasure to better understand the child and his skills, let's use it And let's train ! Let's equip ourselves with effective methods to better observe the child, to have a more detailed analysis of his needs and thus better support him.


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