A quick glance at someone's face can provide essential information. It gives us clues about their internal mental states and future behavior. Humans are surrounded by more information than they can possibly attend to and process. Sensitivity to relevant social cues helps us to determine the importance of information in the world. Among the many types of social cues used in this process, eye gaze is a social cue to which humans often pay close attention. Although our basic understanding of eye gaze perception and processing has increased in past years, the early development and underlying mechanisms of eye gaze processing remain largely unknown. The goals of this project are to assess how social cues influence infants' attention, object processing and underlying neural processes. With support from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Tricia Striano and colleagues at Hunter College, City University of New York, will address these questions using measures of infant brain activity. A series of studies will be conducted in which 3 to 9 month old infants view computer displays of an adult whose gaze is directed toward objects or toward an external location. Changes in electrophysiological brain responses will tell us how neural processing and learning about faces and objects are influenced by eye gaze directionality in early infancy.
During the first postnatal year of life, infants acquire skills and knowledge that are foundational for later language acquisition, social-communicative behavior, and cognitive development. The funded research will increase understanding of infant learning, brain and cognitive development, and provide information about how infant learning can be facilitated by social cues. These advancements will provide insight into the optimal learning environment for typically developing infants. Moreover, the findings may inform strategies for earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions for atypical social development in autism spectrum disorders. By involving young scientists in research, the project will also enhance the infrastructure for developmental social neuroscience and autism research at Hunter College, an institution with a socio-economically diverse student population. The funded project will also enhance public awareness of early infancy research and disseminate findings through the website www.infancyresearch.com, various public talks and events, and a new magazine supported in part by Hunter College ("Infancy Research: A Journal for Students, Parents and Educators").