Our current research is focused around The Care Project, designed to help us understand how early childhood experiences shape continuing mental and physical health. The Care Project explores two phenomena: depression during pregnancy and the ways babies visually explore emotions. Here, you can read more about this project and the methods and tools we use to conduct this research.
The Care Project
Depression during pregnancy is very common, affecting 13–40% of pregnant women and impacting the brain development of the unborn child, making the child more likely to be overwhelmed by stress and negative emotions. It can also lead to difficulties for the child with being patient and not acting on impulses. Because of these difficulties, children whose mothers were depressed while pregnant are 3–5 times more likely to experience depression themselves.
The Care Project is a large randomized control trial funded by the National Institute of Mental Health that is testing whether helping moms with feelings of sadness or depression during pregnancy can benefit the mom and baby. We are researching whether decreasing these feelings during pregnancy can reduce the difficulties associated with stress, negative emotions, impulse control and patience that put babies at higher risk of developing depression and anxiety later in life. We follow moms throughout pregnancy and into their baby's first 18 months of life.
To learn more about the Care Project or to inquire about participation, go to our Care Project website.
Eye Tracking and the CARE Project
A baby's ability to take in their environment grows rapidly over the first year of life. Newborn babies' vision is rather blurry and in the first week, they can see objects around 8–12 inches away from their face most clearly (which is about the distance from their face to yours during feeding!). Their vision, however, improves dramatically across infancy and starts to become more adult-like around 12 months.
As vision develops, babies begin to show preferences for what types of things they like to look at. Perhaps most commonly, we see that as babies grow, they start to prefer looking at faces. As they gain more experience looking at faces (especially those of their caregivers), babies will start to spend more time looking at the eyes and mouth and will learn to tell the difference between different types of emotional expressions.
In the Care Project, we measure how babies visually explore different types of emotional faces using eye tracking. Babies are shown a series of faces including happy, sad and angry faces, and the eye tracker records where the are looking on the screen throughout the task. We hope to see how babies are exploring these faces and look forward to sharing what we find! For more information on eye tracking and other methods used in the Care Project, visit the Care Project website.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of uncontrollable stress for many women. Many are experiencing an increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety during this unprecedented time. We are excited to share that our research (gathered from our recent COVID-19 survey sent out in April of 2020) indicates that receiving social support and connection during the COVID-19 pandemic may be protective against these difficulties.
Electroencephalography (EEG) measures electrical activity in the brain. The brain is made up cells, called neurons, that communicate with each other using electricity and send messages very quickly throughout the brain. In this study, we use a small net of sensors placed in a cap on your baby's head to see changes in activation in the brain almost as quickly as they occur.
We are using the EEG to measure brain activity in response to happy, fearful and angry faces in infants. We hope to understand differences in how the developing brain processes different emotional cues. EEG research shows babies discriminate among emotional facial expressions as early as 7 months. Our findings suggest that babies pay more attention to fearful faces compared to happy faces.
This means that babies are attentive to their social environment. Although they cannot talk yet, they try to understand what is being communicated to them. A surprising amount of information in social interactions is communicated through facial expressions. Thanks to methods like EEG, we are now able to understand when and how babies develop the ability to understand emotional expressions. For more information on EEG and other methods used in the Care Project, visit the Care Project website.