Brainy Babies

Boston is a growing hub for research into the infant mind.

infant research bostonPhotos by Angela Coppola

When Kristina Parry saw her five-month-old son, Jude, wearing a sensor net with wires protruding from his head at UMass Boston, her instinct was to rip it off. The cap looked to Parry like it might hurt the boy. But then he flashed her “his big dimpled smile, and I just laughed.”

Jude wasn’t ill. Rather, a researcher at Brigham and Women’s had contacted Parry the day after her son was born, and she had signed him up to participate in an early-­childhood-development study investigating how long babies can remember details about a social interaction with their mothers.

Much of what we know about how children like Jude learn comes from infant-cognition experiments—and much of that knowledge comes from Boston, home to the world’s leading baby-brain research labs. Zsuzsa Kaldy, an associate professor of psychology at UMass Boston, estimates that the city has the greatest number of independent infant-research labs in the U.S.

The range of ways we study babies here is vast. Scientists at Children’s Hospital use sensor caps, like the one Jude wore, to monitor the brain activity of infants who experienced a lack of oxygen at birth, trying to determine, among other things, how they recognize faces. Psychologists at Harvard, meanwhile, track eye movements to investigate the way babies learn to recognize specific people using cues such as skin color, clothes, and speech patterns. (A baby, it turns out, will stare longer at an adult who has a regional accent with which he’s familiar. Clevah!)

This month Boston University will enter the ranks of local institutions with infant-­research centers, joining the likes of Boston College, Harvard, MIT, and Northeastern. BU’s program will be run by its Lab of Developmental ­Cognitive Neuroscience, where researchers will focus on understanding the neural foundations of social engagement.

With so many labs, there is, understandably, a great demand for babies. In addition to soliciting recent and soon-to-be parents, labs recruit volunteers using public birth records, or just by asking for them on their websites. Children’s Hospital’s lab has close to 900 youngsters registered as test subjects, and Boston College’s lab has tested 1,000 ­infants over the past three years.

Given that many of their parents are involved in education and research, it’s not shocking that Boston’s babies are being called to contribute to science. After Rachel Beckhardt Hinchliffe gave birth to her son, Theo, for example, she read everything she could “to understand what he was thinking, feeling, and comprehending.” Now 18 months old, he’s a veteran of four experiments at Harvard’s Laboratory for Developmental Studies, and Rachel believes she’s “helping future parents understand their babies.”

Sara Cordes, the principal investigator of the Infant and Child Cognition Lab at Boston College, contends that this attitude makes Boston a great place to study not just babies but also their parents. Cordes, who studies what role parents play in the development of mathematical abilities in their children by reading them counting books, explains that through this ­research, we can discover how parents “give children a head start in the classroom before they even begin to speak.”

infant research boston