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‘We see what’s happening in their brain’: inside the ToddlerLab | Children

With her Mickey Mouse backpack, coloured Duplo blocks and disarmingly cute smile, Serena could be any young child constructing a toy house for an imaginary character – were it not for the wires and nodules sticking out of her head. But Serena is a pint-sized pioneer at the cutting edge of research into the enduring mystery of what makes toddlers tick. She is among the first children to be studied at the world’s first dedicated ToddlerLab – a multimillion-pound effort to get inside the heads of toddlers.

Young children do and say the most extraordinary things, and in neurological terms, they are extraordinary creatures. “The change in between two and five years of age is pretty spectacular: there’s a lot going on in terms of brain development and cognitive development,” said Prof Natasha Kirkham, a reader in developmental psychology at the Birkbeck Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD) in London, home to the Wohl Wolfson ToddlerLab.

Babies’ brains have been extensively studied, by tracking their eye movements, the flow of blood to different brain regions – through a technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) – and the brain’s electrical activity. However, scientific understanding of toddlers has been limited because, until recently, they needed to be tethered to a machine for these tracking and imaging technologies to work.

“That was fine for babies, because babies don’t move around much. But as soon as you get to about 18 months and above, children want to move around, and importantly, it’s not part of their natural behaviour to sit still,” said the CBCD’s director, Prof Denis Mareschal.

Serena building house out of Duplo blocks
Serena is shown a video demonstrating how to build the house, then asked to copy what she has observed. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

The development of wearable and wireless technologies is now enabling scientists to extend their studies to toddlers. “It means that we can now study young children roaming wild and free, in their natural form, to see what’s happening in the brain while they’re exploring,” Mareschal said. “It also allows us to better understand how they begin to interact with each other socially, and how that impacts on their learning.”

Though no longer a toddler, six-year-old Serena Cadete Duarte is part of a cohort of young children who have been followed by Birkbeck researchers since the age of three, to better understand the development of executive function – a set of mental skills that includes planning, working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control.

“What’s these?” asks Serena, as research lab developer Dr Paola Pinti hands her a pair of pink fingerless gloves, covered in white reflective bobbles, to wear. The gloves will enable the research team to track Serena’s hand movements via 18 motion-tracking cameras rigged up around the laboratory ceiling, while she plans and builds a house out of Duplo blocks.

“Kids are very physical: they gesture a lot, and they point a lot, and sometimes that can give away their thought processes,” says Kirkham. “For example, if you ask a kid to move an item to a certain place, you can see them do it, but what you might catch on a motion capture system is a slight movement to a different thing first – so you can see where they almost made an error.”

Dr Paola Pinti putting the gloves on Serena
The gloves enable the research team to track Serena’s hand movements. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Now, Pinti slips a fNIRS cap covered in wires and sensors on to Serena’s head, and slides a transceiver into her backpack. This will wirelessly transmit information from the sensors to a computer. “We need to look at your brain while you’re playing with the Duplo blocks,” Pinti says.

“OK,” says Serena, sitting down at a table in the lab, which has been kitted out to resemble a preschool classroom.

She is shown a short video in which an adult demonstrates how to press a button to release individual Duplo blocks from a set of boxes in front of her, and use them to build a house. When the video stops, Serena is told to copy what she has just observed.

The last time Serena executed this task, her performance was very different: three- and four-year-olds are less able to follow complex instructions, their fine motor skills less developed. Now, she deftly builds a sturdy coloured house, with a garden filled with bright plastic flowers.

Understanding how such brain processes develop isn’t a purely cerebral exercise: Children with neurodivergent disorders, such as autism, may also have trouble with certain skills such as planning, which Pinti’s study is focused on better understanding.

Toddlerhood is also when children start to discover social interactions, gradually progressing from playing alongside one another, to sharing and collaborating during play. Here, too, a better understanding of the subtle ways in neurodivergent children’s brains and behaviours differ during the early years could help potential problems to be identified earlier, when there may be more scope to intervene.

Other laboratories include a “home lab”, resembling a front room, and a “nap lab” where researchers can study children’s sleep. However, the jewel in the ToddlerLab’s crown is a virtual environment known as the Cave, which can simulate real-world settings, such as a farm, playground or supermarket, without the need for a bulky VR headset.

Serena inside the Cave, an immersive VR environment created to test children’s brains.
Serena inside the Cave, an immersive VR environment created to test children’s brains. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“If you really want to understand natural behaviours, you have to be in a 3D world, but of course we can’t build environments such as a beach, or a forest, or a zoo, in a laboratory,” Mareschal says. Understanding how children interact with an animal, versus a person, say, could provide new insights into conditions such as autism, where some individuals appear to find it easier to connect with animals compared with their peers. Virtual environments could also help researchers to understand when and how young children begin to distinguish between what’s real and imaginary.

Serena is the first child to test the system out. On top of the motion-tracking gloves and fNIRS cap, she is given a pair of large plastic spectacles to wear. These enable her to see in 3D, as well as allowing her eye movements to be tracked – an indication of what is capturing her interest at any given time. “I think I look like a DJ,” Serena says.

She is guided into a section of the room, where a playground scene is being projected on to the walls and floor. A small purple elephant is standing on the grass in front of her. Serena is taught how to burst the balloons that rise up from behind his head, by waving her arms to control a small white ball. “I like coming here to play the different games, says Serena,” as she leaps around the room. I wonder what she would like to be when she’s older. “I’d like to be an ocean scientist,” she says.

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