In the first days of an infant’s life, the baby’s brain responds to and adapts in a multiple ways to the infant’s new environment. Because newborns spend so much time asleep, researchers wondered whether the newborn brain also learned during sleep. Now, a simple experiment has shown that sleep does not shut down the newborn brain’s capacity to learn.
To conduct this experiment, scientists supported by the Pregnancy and Perinatology Branch first sounded a simple tone and then aimed a brief puff of air to sleeping infants’ eyelids. By tracking eye movements under the eyelids and measuring electrical activity in the brain, the researchers found that when the air puff always followed the tone, the newborns learned to predict when the puff of air would occur. For another group of babies, when the puff didn’t always follow the tone, the babies didn’t anticipate the air puff.
The electrical brain activity suggested that the learned sequence (tone, then puff) was being consolidated in the newborn’s memory.
The researchers suggested that in the future, clinicians may be able to use such simple conditioning to screen for brain abnormalities associated with certain neurodevelopmental disorders, including dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, and schizophrenia (PMID: 20479232).