Study On Newborn Learning May Lead To Early Identification Of Autism

Children learn so quickly, it's amazing, especially between the ages of one and five.  As they and we get older our brains become less malleable or, as neuroscientists might say, our brains have less plasticity. A new study led by researchers at the University of Florida (UF) discovered that newborns learn even while they sleep, a finding that may lead to an early identification method for detecting autism, dyslexia, and other developmental disorders.

Researchers studied 26 sleeping newborns that were one or two days old.  Using a standard classical conditioning technique, researchers coupled an auditory tone with a gentle puff of air to the babies' eyelids.  After 20 minutes, the researchers stopped the puff of air and just played the tone, but 24 of the 26 babies squeezed their eyelids in anticipation of the puff of air.  In these 24 babies learning took place.

The 24 infants were compared with a control group using EEG and video recordings to measure the changes that took place in the infants' brains, and the researchers recorded a neural measurement as objective evidence of 'memory updating.'

Learned eyelid movements reflect normal functioning of the cerebellum, at the base of the brain. Children with autism and some other disabilities show atypical cerebellar structures, leading researchers to believe that their discovery of newborn learning behaviors during sleep might lead to early identification and, therefore, early intervention of developmentally disabled infants.

The Florida study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first study to test learning activity of newborns during sleep.  They have a more 'active sleep,' shown by rapid changes in heart and breathing patterns.  Older children and adults don't share these sleep behaviors.

"This methodology opens up research areas into potentially detecting high risk populations, those who show abnormalities in the neural systems underlying this form of learning," said Dana Byrd, a UF research affiliate in psychology. "These would include siblings of individuals with autism and siblings of those with dyslexia."

Science Daily