Scientists from the University of Louvain in Belgium have discovered that a key element of infant brain development occurs years earlier than previously thought. The way humans perceive faces -- using the right hemisphere of the brain -- is unique and sets us apart from non-human primates. It was thought that this ability develops as we learn to read, but a new study published online on June 2, 2015 in an open-access article in the journal eLife shows that in babies as young as four months it is already highly evolved. The paper is titled “Rapid Categorization of Natural Face Images in the Infant Right Hemisphere.” "Just as language is impaired following damage to the brain's left hemisphere, damage to the right hemisphere can impair our ability to distinguish faces so it is critical to understand how it develops," says co-author Dr. Bruno Rossion, Principal Investigator at the University of Louvain. Researchers used a cap fitted with electrodes to monitor the brain activity of 15 babies as they sat on their mothers' laps and watched a rapid succession of images over 20 seconds. They were shown 48 images of faces that differed in viewpoint, color, lighting, and background, interspersed with 200 images of animals, plants, and man-made objects. Each image was shown for only 166 milliseconds, the same rate used for adult studies. Compared to other images, the appearance of a face was shown to coincide with a specific spike in stimulation of the right hemisphere of the brain. The difference between the right and the left hemisphere was even more pronounced than in the same study with adults, confounding previous assumptions. "Given the enormous resources devoted to digital face recognition, the babies' brain accomplishment is not trivial," says Dr. Rossion.
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