Future Visual Cognitive Abilities can be Seen in Newborn’s Eyes

A study performed in the Children’s Hospital within Helsinki University Central Hospital demonstrates that the visual abilities of the newborn can predict childhood development of visual processing.

Additionally, the study 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 concept that vital cognitive abilities are already present in a newborn infant, and later neurocognitive development proceeds in a cascade that builds on these early cognitive building blocks.

Early Detection of Cognitive Problems

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 to another important 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 in use.

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.

This new study provides evidence as to the scientific relevance of this intuitive experience. But it also opens new possibilities for developing research and care in pediatric neurology.

The findings have convinced the researchers of the necessity to develop objective and quantitative measures of eye contact in the newborn. They could help us recognize children with developmental risks right after birth.

Such a method would open unprecedented vistas in developing new therapeutic interventions that could start from the first months of life, which is even years before the problems become apparent using current approaches, says Dr. Marjo Metsäranta, Adjunct Professor in neonatology.

Reference:

Sampsa Vanhatalo & al.
Visual fixation in human newborns correlates with extensive white matter networks and predicts long term neurocognitive development.
Journal of Neuroscience, 25 March, 2015