Infants pay attention with their frontal cortex of the brain

Looking behind the mirror,” for the neural origins of attention.


Attention is the gateway to what infants perceive and learn. It helps determine what information gets into the brain, creating memories, language, and thought.

Past studies on attention in babies rely upon tracking their gaze while they are presented with visual stimuli. This process theoretically offers insights into what is going on in their minds.

However, it is unclear whether these regions are sufficiently mature in infancy to support attention and, more generally, how the brain supports infant attention.

A new study by Yale University used event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan awake babies’ brains. Scientists found that infants use their frontal cortex while focusing their attention. The frontal cortex is a section of the brain involved in more advanced functions previously thought to be immature in babies.

Scientists tracked the neural activity of 20 babies aged from 3 to 12 months. They followed which regions of their brains were activated as they focused their attention in response to a series of images.

In a series of tests, the babies were shown a screen on which a target would show up on either the left or right side. For each situation, these appearances were preceded by one of three visual cues signaling where the target would show up: on the same side that the target would appear, on the two sides of the screen (accordingly uninformative), or on the opposite side. 

Specialists monitored the babies’ eye movements as they completed these tasks. As expected, the babies were much quicker to move their eyes to the target when first presented with the correct cue, confirming that the cues had focused their attention.

At the same time, scientists used brain imaging technology to observe which areas of the brain were recruited during these tasks. Along with the brain’s sensory areas, they found that activity also increased in two areas of the frontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex and the middle frontal gyrus, areas of the brain that, when fully developed, are involved in controlling adult attention.

Cameron Ellis, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Yale and first author of the paper, said, “This doesn’t mean these regions play the same role in babies as in adults, but it does show that infants use them to explore their visual world.”

“Studying how the brain is enlisted during development will help researchers uncover the foundations of human learning, which could one day help improve early-childhood education and reveal the roots of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Cameron T. Ellis et al. Attention recruits frontal cortex in human infants. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2021474118
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