Emotion Processing in Infancy and Early Childhood

The Development and Neural Bases of Emotion Processing

Brief Description

The purpose of this study is to investigate the development of emotion processing in the first seven years of life. Specifically, we are interested in how emotion processing changes from infancy to childhood and how it may be related to other cognitive domains, temperament, and physiology in children. To learn about this, we measure brain activity and eye movements while young kids watch pictures of people displaying different emotions. This data will be compared to their brain activity and eye movements while participating in the same task at infancy. We also administer a short temperament assessment, a battery of tests to measure ability in different cognitive domains, and an assessment of physiological responses.

Eligibility for Participation

As of April 2017, the study team has finished infant data collection and will only be running follow-up studies with families who were previously enrolled at infancy. Our team will be inviting enrolled families to come back in at later time points, so keep an eye out for our emails!

Participation Details

This study involves one visit to the lab at each time point (when your child turns 3, 5, and 7 years). Sessions typically last anywhere from one and a half to three hours, and will be scheduled at a time that is convenient for you and your child. While we will contact you at each time point, the follow up visits to the lab are completely optional. Additionally, if you have left the Boston area, there are options for remote participation.

Research Contacts:

Anna Zhou (Nelson Laboratory

Anna Fasman (Nelson Laboratory

Julia Cataldo (Nelson Laboratory

Ruby Almanza (Nelson Laboratory

You may also reach us at 857-218-3660 or emotion.project@childrens.harvard.edu.

Full Description

The ability to read emotions in facial expressions is a critical skill that helps us to navigate our social world. For example, being able to recognize a fearful, happy, or angry face is key to interacting successfully with the people around us. In the current study, we aim to understand how this ability emerges and evolves in infancy and throughout early childhood. To do this, we will measure the brain’s response to a range of emotional faces. We will also use eye-tracking to monitor how babies look at these faces, measures of skin conductance (sweat) to examine physiological response, and we will collect saliva samples for genetic analysis. By using these varied methods we aim to create a comprehensive picture that charts the developmental course of emotion processing throughout infancy and early childhood, including the underlying neural architecture. By following up at age three, we hope to be able to track the changes in the development of emotion processing that occur between infancy and three years. By administering other assessments and tests throughout the visit, we also hope to better understand the relationships between behaviors in children and how they process emotions. More specifically, we are looking to see how emotion processing may relate to a child’s temperament, his or her cognitive abilities more generally, and his or her physiological reactivity. During the visit, children will begin with a short temperament assessment. During the assessment, they will be asked to participate in some novel tasks, some of which include touching a robot, approaching a stranger (who is one of the research assistants on the project whom the child has not had contact with yet), and having their blood pressure taken. After the temperament assessment, we will collect another saliva sample for genetic analysis and then the children will complete the same brain-based task as the one completed at infancy. Next, we have the children complete a set of cognitive measures with an experimenter. During these measures, we ask them how different people are thinking and feeling, as well as have them play a game similar to Simon Says. Finally, the children will participate in a physiological reactivity assessment where heart rate and respiratory rate are measured in response to various stimuli. Ultimately, we aim to shed light on how early emotion processing influences later-emerging social-cognitive behaviors, and how these behavioral processes can be influenced by early experience and brain development. If we can create a road map for the typical development of these neural networks, we can potentially identify early markers for children who may be at risk for later issues such as anxiety or mood disorders. Early identification would allow for earlier intervention, which generally leads to better outcomes for children and their families.

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