Publications of Volein, A.

Verbal labels modulate perceptual object processing in one-year-old children

It has been debated whether acquiring verbal labels helps infants' visual processing and categorization of objects. Using electroencephalography, we investigated whether possessing or learning verbal labels for objects directly enhances one-year-old infants' neural processes underlying the perception of those objects. We found enhanced gamma-band (20 to 60 Hz) oscillatory activity over the visual cortex in response to seeing objects whose names one-year-old infants knew (Experiment 1), or for which they had just been taught a label (Experiment 2). No such effect was observed for objects with which the infants were simply familiar without having a label for them. These results demonstrate that learning verbal labels modulates how the visual system processes the images of the associated objects, and suggest a possible route of top-down influence of semantic knowledge on object perception.

Neural correlates of eye gaze processing in the infant broader autism phenotype

Background: Studies of infant siblings of children diagnosed with autism have allowed for a prospective approach to study the emergence of autism in infancy and revealed early behavioral characteristics of the broader autism phenotype. In view of previous findings of atypical eye gaze processing in children and adults with autism, the aim of this study was to examine the early autism phenotype in infant siblings of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (sib-ASD), focusing on the neural correlates of direct compared with averted gaze. Methods: A group of 19 sib-ASD was compared with 17 control infants with no family history of ASD (mean age = 10 months) on their response to direct versus averted gaze in static stimuli. Results: Relative to the control group, the sib-ASD group showed prolonged latency of the occipital P400 event-related potentials component in response to direct gaze, but they did not differ in earlier components. Similarly, time-frequency analysis of high-frequency oscillatory activity in the gamma band showed group differences in response to direct gaze, where induced gamma activity was late and less persistent over the right temporal region in the sib-ASD group. Conclusion: This study suggests that a broader autism phenotype, which includes an atypical response to direct gaze, is manifest early in infancy.

Visual orienting in the early broader autism phenotype: disengagement and facilitation

Recent studies of infant siblings of children diagnosed with autism have allowed for a prospective approach to examine the emergence of symptoms and revealed behavioral differences in the broader autism phenotype within the early years. In the current study we focused on a set of functions associated with visual attention, previously reported to be atypical in autism. We compared performance of a group of 9-10-month-old infant siblings of children with autism to a control group with no family history of autism on the 'gap-overlap task', which measures the cost of disengaging from a central stimulus in order to fixate a peripheral one. Two measures were derived on the basis of infants' saccadic reaction times. The first is the Disengagement effect, which measures the efficiency of disengaging from a central stimulus to orient to a peripheral one. The second was a Facilitation effect, which arises when the infant is cued by a temporal gap preceding the onset of the peripheral stimulus, and would orient faster after its onset. Infant siblings of children with autism showed longer Disengagement latencies as well as less Facilitation relative to the control group. The findings are discussed in relation to how differences in visual attention may relate to characteristics observed in autism and the broader phenotype.

Infants can infer the presence of hidden objects from referential gaze information

Infants' apparent failure in gaze-following tasks is often interpreted as a sign of lack of understanding the referential nature of looking. In the present study, 8- and 12-month-old infants followed the gaze of a model to one of two locations hidden from their view by occluders. When the occluders were removed, an object was revealed either at the location where the model had looked or at the other side. Infants at both ages looked longer at the empty location when it had been indicated by the model's looking behaviour, and this effect held up even when their first look after gaze following was discounted. This result demonstrates that even young infants hold referential expectations when they follow others' gaze and infer the location of hidden objects accordingly.

Electrophysiological evidence of illusory audiovisual speech percept in human infants

How effortlessly and quickly infants acquire their native language remains one of the most intriguing questions of human development. Our study extends this question into the audiovisual domain, taking into consideration visual speech cues, which were recently shown to have more importance for young infants than previously anticipated [Weikum WM, Vouloumanos A, Navarra J, Soto-Faraco, S, Sebastian-Galles N, Werker JF (2007) Science 316:1159]. A particularly interesting phenomenon of audiovisual speech perception is the McGurk effect [McGurk H, MacDonald J (1976) Nature 264:746-748], an illusory speech percept resulting from integration of incongruent auditory and visual speech cues. For some phonemes, the human brain does not detect the mismatch between conflicting auditory and visual cues but automatically assimilates them into the closest legal phoneme, sometimes different from both auditory and visual ones. Measuring event-related brain potentials in 5-month-old infants, we demonstrate differential brain responses when conflicting auditory and visual speech cues can be integrated and when they cannot be fused into a single percept. This finding reveals a surprisingly early ability to perceive speech cross-modally and highlights the role of visual speech experience during early postnatal development in learning of the phonemes and phonotactics of the native language.

Investigation of depth dependent changes in cerebral haemodynamics during face perception in infants

Near-infrared spectroscopy has been used to record oxygenation changes in the visual cortex of 4 month old infants. Our in-house topography system, with 30 channels and 3 different source–detector separations, recorded changes in the concentration of oxy-, deoxy- and total haemoglobin (HbO2, HHb and HbT) in response to visual stimuli (face, scrambled visual noise and cartoons as rest). The aim of this work was to demonstrate the capability of the system to spatially localize functional activation and study the possibility of depth discrimination in the haemodynamic response. The group data show both face stimulation and visual noise stimulation induced significant increases in HbO2 from rest, but the increase in HbO2 with face stimulation was not significantly different from that seen with visual noise stimulation. The face stimuli induced increases in HbO2 were spread across a greater area across all depths than visual noise induced changes. In results from a single subject there was a significant increase of HbO2 in the inferior area of the visual cortex in response to both types of stimuli, and a larger number of channels (source–detector pairs) showed HbO2 increase to face stimuli, especially at the greatest depth. Activation maps were obtained using 3D reconstruction methods on multi source–detector separation optical topography data.

Near infrared spectroscopy reveals neural activation during face perception in infants and adults

We used near infrared spectroscopy to measure changes in cerebral oxygenation in both human infants and adults as they viewed images of faces or control “visual noise” stimuli. At an occipital site, adults showed a significant increase in oxyhaemoglobin and a contrasting pattern of results was observed in infants. While the same general difference between the processing of the two stimuli was observed, a larger decrease in oxyhemoglobin concentration in response to faces than to visual noise was found in infants. These results demonstrate that near infrared spectroscopy can detect differences in stimulus processing induced by a complex visual stimulus in both infants and adults.

Face-sensitive cortical processing in early infancy

Background: Debates about the developmental origins of adult face processing could be directly addressed if a clear infant neural marker could be identified. Previous research with infants remains open to criticism regarding the control stimuli employed. Methods: We recorded ERPs from adults and 3-month-old infants while they watched faces and matched visual noise stimuli. Results: We observed similar amplitude enhancement for faces in the infant N290 and adult N170. In contrast, the infant P400 showed only a latency effect, making it unlikely to be the main precursor of the adult N170. Conclusions: We conclude that there is some degree of specificity of cortical processing of faces as early as 3 months of age.