Many things can be read in a newborn's gaze, such as future visual cognitive abilities
Experienced nannies and doctors have always known how much the visual contact with a newborn can convey. A recent study provides scientific evidence for this everyday understanding. The findings show that a newborn's ability to fixate relates to the microscopic maturation of brain structures, and it predicts visual cognitive abilities later in childhood.
A study performed in the University of Helsinki and the Children's Hospital within Helsinki University Central Hospital shows that the visual abilities of the newborn predict childhood development of visual processing.
The study also showed that the newborn ability to fixate on objects is related to the level of maturation at the microscopic level studied by magnetic resonance imaging. An abnormal newborn fixation associates with widespread changes in the white matter tracts.
These findings support the idea that key cognitive abilities are already present in a newborn infant, and later neurocognitive development proceeds as a cascade that builds on these early cognitive building blocks.
Poor visual cognitive abilities are the most common lifelong compromise in children born very prematurely or with oxygen deprivation at birth, says Dr. Sampsa Vanhatalo, the leader of this study, and adjunct professor in clinical neurophysiology. Learning the early development of visual abilities will hopefully open new pathways to early recognition of cognitive problems, and, consequently, we will learn how to help the infant and prevent development of visual cognitive disabilities, says child neurologist Dr. Aulikki Lano, the head of neurological examinations in the project.
Vanhatalo points out another key conclusion of their study: A well done clinical examination may be as informative of a child's future as many of the technologically advanced research methods currently popular.
Most adults with experience in babysitting or other child care have always paid attention to the eye contact of the child. It is somewhere deep in the back of our minds to note when a newborn has abnormal eye contact, yet its significance has not been shown in scientific studies. Our new study provides evidence as to the scientific relevance of this intuitive experience; however, it also opens new possibilities for developing research and care in pediatric neurology.