Discovering the real baby Einsteins

One of the babies in Dr. Berger’s study wearing a ‘geodesic-net’, which consists of 128 electrodes woven together.You may think that your baby is merely gazing at the stars, when in fact, she may be counting them. That’s what Israeli …

One of the babies in Dr. Berger’s study wearing a ‘geodesic-net’, which consists of 128 electrodes woven together.You may think that your baby is merely gazing at the stars, when in fact, she may be counting them.

That’s what Israeli researcher Dr. Andrea Berger and her colleagues have set out to investigate in their pioneering research on what goes on inside the minds of young babies, focusing specifically on their mathematical abilities.

Berger, a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev says that the aim of her project, conducted together with experts at the University of Oregon, is to provide data to back up the theory tha “babies can process quantity data very, very early in life and can even perform very basic mathematical operations like addition and subtraction.”

“The overall direction of our work is to look for the development of executive attention and cognitive functions in babies. The way I decided to do it was to connect it to the babies’ perception of quantities,” Berger told ISRAEL21c.

Berger may be conducting basic research, but her work and the cutting-edge technological tools she is using to conduct it could someday be harnessed to detect developmental problems or learning disabilities during infancy and therefore allow intervention to begin earlier.

With the help of well-baby clinics and cooperative parents in the southern city of Beersheba, Berger has been conducting research that involves the babies wearing a cap of electrodes, which allows her to pursue a methodology known as ‘event-related potential’ or ERP.

ERP measures the electrical activity produced by the brain in response to a sensory stimulus or associated with the execution of a motor, cognitive, or psychophysiological task.

More than 50 babies are participating in the study that is trying to figure out what is going through their minds via this sophisticated electrical scan. Using a warm salt-water solution, Berger’s carefully trained team attaches to each baby’s head a shower cap-like covering called a ‘geodesic-net’, which consists of 128 electrodes woven together. The electrodes transmit the electricity to a computer, which displays the brain activity.

The ERP technique enables the analysis of the electrophysiological responses measured from the scalp as a response to a certain event or stimulus.

ERPs provide unique and important timing information about brain processing. Mental operations, such as those involved in language processing, and memory, takes place tens of milliseconds. While other brain imaging techniques are unable to capture the precise sequence of these operations, ERP recordings are unique in that they are able to provide a millisecond-by-millisecond reflection of evoked brain activity.

For this reason, ERPs are an ideal methodology for studying the timing aspects of both normal and abnormal cognitive processes, and are increasingly popular as a tool for researchers.

Berger was the first to bring the geodesic-net ERP tool to Israel when she began using it in her lab – since then, two more Israeli universities have acquired it. Using the technique, she says “We are able to identify the exact millisecond when the baby is presented with an impossible event, and we can examine the brainwaves and the pattern of activity.”

Her research is attempting to verify and expand on famous research by Dr. Karen Wynn of the psychology department at the University of Arizona. Ten years ago, Wynn conducted experiments on young babies and came to the conclusion that they could quantify small numbers of items.

Wynn studied infants who were first shown a picture of a Mickey Mouse doll – then another doll. After that, half of them were shown a picture of two dolls, and half only one doll – so half the group watched a correct mathematical equation and half an incorrect one.

Another group was shown subtraction shown a sequence of events depicting a subtraction of one doll. First they were shown two dolls, then one was taken away, and at the end – half saw one doll and half saw two – again, a correct equation and a mistaken one.

When Wynn recorded how much time each infant spent looking at the display, she found that the infants looked longer at the ‘wrong’ answer to the problem, and that therefore the babies had an understanding of the mathematical concepts, and that they knew that an addition or subtraction results in a change in the number of items and what that change should be.

Ten years later, Berger believes it is now possible to get a more detailed accurate idea of what exactly is happening in the baby’s minds using ERP – by measuring exactly what electrical activity takes place when the baby looks at correct and incorrect mathematical equations.

Signals produced by the brains of adults have already been studied. Research by Berger and her colleagues in the field has determined that when adults make an error there is a change in the electrical signal recorded at the scalp, which appears to be a signal of the subject’s awareness of making the error. More recently, they have discovered that the same signal can be found in adults not only when the subject makes an error, but also when adults are shown an error, for example, an erroneous computation such as 1 + 3 = 9.

These adult signals can be used as a baseline to compare the activity in the babies’ brains.

The 50 babies in Berger’s study were all healthy, full-term babies without any known problems. The parents and babies visited the lab for an hour, and the babies watched a specially-designed film replicating the model of the Wynn research while sitting on their parents’ lab wearing the electrode cap. They were tape-recorded during the session to allow the collection of gaze time for the correct and incorrect outcomes.

Berger is conducting her study jointly with Prof. Michael Posner at the University of Oregon, an institution that is on the leading edge of ERP research, and the place where she did her post-doctoral work.

Their research is being supported by the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation. She is currently in the final stages of completing collecting her data collection and is now beginning to analyze it.

Berger began her career working with computers, not babies. Born in Argentina, she immigrated to the desert Israeli town of Arad in 1977 when she was in high school.

After her required army service was completed, she stayed on, working for the IDF as a computer programmer, and at the same time completing her degree at Bar Ilan University in computer science.

“When you do computer science at Bar Ilan, you have to choose a second track – most people choose mathematics or economics, but I decided to study psychology, and was very attracted to the subject.”

After she left the army, she returned to Arad, and began graduate study in cognitive psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, earning her master’s and her doctorate, followed by post-doctoral work in Oregon.

Her interest was in a very specific area called developmental cognitive neuroscience.

“It’s the junction between cognitive psychology, developmental psychology and neuropsychology,” she explained.

Her current research is a natural outgrowth of her overall interest in relationship between the brain and behavior during development, and the development of the executive aspects of attention and control.

Returning home from her studies at Oregon five years ago, she received a special grant, designed to bring new researchers to BGU. Today she is a lecturer and runs the ERP laboratory and is the head of the developmental psychology program. She lives in the town of Lehavim near Beersheba and is married with two daughters.

“It’s a busy life with teaching, research and running the lab,” she said. “But I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”