UW researchers study body maps in babies' brains

SEATTLE--This is for any parent who's looked at a child and wondered what's going on in that little brain of theirs. Researchers at the University of Washington wonder too, and they're getting answers.

Eight month old Liara doesn't have words, but she can communicate with her mom through sounds, looks and touch.

"I hold her a lot, touch her a lot, kisses. I think to her it's really important but also to me as a mother," said Anna Waismeyer.

Researchers at UW's Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences are among the first to study a baby's sense of touch and how it's registered in the brain. We know that adult brains have something called a body map.

"You have your entire body laid out so that when you touch your hand, there's a hand region in your brain. When you touch your foot, there's a foot region but we didn't know about that for human babies and we wanted to study the development of body maps in human babies," said Dr. Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of I-LABS. "If you're a little baby and you grab an object and want to get it in your mouth, uh oh, where's my mouth? Is it over here, is it here, and babies are very skilled at some point at picking up an object and bringing it to the mouth. That requires a body map and coordination between hand and mouth. Same thing with spoon feeding and other sorts of thing."

In the study, infants felt taps on their skin from a balloon. EEG tests measured brain activity. Taps on the foot lit up the center of the brain. Touch to the hand fired up the side of the brain. Those are points along the baby's body map. Researchers hope this helps them discover more about brain development and how children learn.

"We believe that understanding brain development ultimately will help us form our notions of education and early education to show everyone how much the babies know and learn in the first 5 years and how much they need caretakers."

Those caretakers already know to read to their children and to teach colors, numbers and letters. Researchers say parents should add a caring touch to the list of ways they teach.

"Parents, I think, can stimulate body maps and stimulate with touch particularly. There's so much communication between parents and their babies that's pre-verbal before they can talk to you. It's really skin to skin contact and touching that communicates so much," said Meltzoff.
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