UEL Baby Dev Lab

Leveraging epigenetics to examine differences in developmental trajectories of social attention: A proof-of-principle study of DNA methylation in infants with older siblings with autism

Gui, A., Jones, E. J., Wong, C. C., Meaburn, E., Xia, B., Pasco, G., ... & BASIS Team. 2020. Infant Behaviour & development

Preliminary evidence suggests that changes in DNA methylation, a widely studied epigenetic
mechanism, contribute to the etiology of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, data is
primarily derived from post-mortem brain samples or peripheral tissue from adults. Deep-phenotyped longitudinal infant cohorts are essential to understand how epigenetic modifications
relate to early developmental trajectories and emergence of ASD symptoms. We present a proof of-principle study designed to evaluate the potential of prospective epigenetic studies of infant
siblings of children with ASD.

Changes in behavior and salivary cortisol after targeted cognitive training in typical 12-month-old infants

Wass, S. V., Cook, C., & Clackson, K. 2017. Developmental Psychology

Previous research has suggested that early development may be an optimal period to implement cognitive training interventions, particularly those relating to attention control, a basic ability that is essential for the development of other cognitive skills. In the present study, we administered gaze-contingent training (95 minutes across 2 weeks) targeted at voluntary attention control to a cohort of typical 12-month-old children (N = 24) and sham training to a control group (N = 24). We assessed training effects on (a) tasks involving non-trained aspects of attention control: visual sustained attention, habituation speed, visual recognition memory, sequence learning and reversal learning; (b) general attentiveness (on-task behaviours during testing) and (c) salivary cortisol levels. Assessments were administered immediately following the cessation of training and at a 6-week follow-up. On the immediate post-test infants showed significantly more sustained visual attention, faster habituation and improved sequence learning. Significant effects were also found for increased general attentiveness and decreased salivary cortisol. Some of these effects were still evident at the 6-week follow-up (significantly improved sequence learning and marginally improved […] sustained attention). These findings extend the emerging literature showing that attention training is possible in infancy.

Attention training for infants at familial risk of ADHD (INTERSTAARS): study protocol for a randomised controlled trial

Goodwin, A., Salomone, S., Bolton, P., Charman, T., Jones, E. J., Pickles, A., ... & Johnson, M. H. 2016. Trials

Background: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a prevalent neurodevelopmental disorder that can
negatively impact on an individual’s quality of life. It is pathophysiologically complex and heterogeneous with
different neuropsychological processes being impaired in different individuals. Executive function deficits, including
those affecting attention, working memory and inhibitory control, are common. Cognitive training has been promoted
as a treatment option, based on the notion that by strengthening the neurocognitive networks underlying these
executive processes, ADHD symptoms will also be reduced. However, if implemented in childhood or later, when the
full disorder has become well-established, cognitive training has only limited value. INTERSTAARS is a trial designed to
test a novel approach to intervention, in which cognitive training is implemented early in development, before the
emergence of the disorder. The aim of INTERSTAARS is to train early executive skills, thereby increasing resilience and
reducing later ADHD symptoms and associated impairment.
Methods/design: Fifty 10–14-month-old infants at familial risk of ADHD will participate in INTERSTAARS. Infants
will be randomised to an intervention or a control group. The intervention aims to train early attention skills
by using novel eye-tracking technology and gaze-contingent training paradigms. Infants view animated games
on a screen and different events take place contingent on where on the screen the infant is looking. Infants
allocated to the intervention will receive nine weekly home-based attention training sessions. Control group
infants will also receive nine weekly home visits, but instead of viewing the training games during these visits
they will view non-gaze-contingent age-appropriate videos. At baseline and post treatment, infant attention
control will be assessed using a range of eye-tracking, observational, parent-report and neurophysiological
measures. The primary outcome will be a composite of eye-tracking tasks used to assess infant attention skills.
Follow-up data will be collected on emerging ADHD symptoms when the infants are 2 and 3 years old.
Discussion: This is the first randomised controlled trial to assess the potential efficacy of cognitive training as
a prevention measure for infants at familial risk of ADHD. If successful, INTERSTAARS could offer a promising
new approach for developing early interventions for ADHD.

Vocal communication is tied to interpersonal arousal coupling in caregiver-infant dyads.

Wass, S., Phillips, E., Smith, C., Fatimehin, E. O., & Goupil, L. (2022). Elife

It has been argued that a necessary condition for the emergence of speech in humans is the ability to vocalise irrespective of underlying affective states, but when and how this happens during development remains unclear. To examine this, we used wearable microphones and autonomic sensors to collect multimodal naturalistic datasets from 12-month-olds and their caregivers. We observed that, across the day, clusters of vocalisations occur during elevated infant and caregiver arousal. This relationship is stronger in infants than caregivers: caregivers vocalisations show greater decoupling with their own states of arousal, and their vocal production is more influenced by the infant's arousal than their own. Different types of vocalisation elicit different patterns of change across the dyad. Cries occur following reduced infant arousal stability and lead to increased child-caregiver arousal coupling, and decreased infant arousal. Speech-like vocalisations also occur at elevated arousal, but lead to longer-lasting increases in arousal, and elicit more parental verbal responses. Our results suggest that: 12-month-old infants' vocalisations are strongly contingent on their arousal state (for both cries and speech-like vocalisations), whereas adults' vocalisations are more flexibly tied to their own arousal; that cries and speech-like vocalisations alter the intra-dyadic dynamics of arousal in different ways, which may be an important factor driving speech development; and that this selection mechanism which drives vocal development is anchored in our stress physiology.

Applying gaze-contingent training within community settings to infants from diverse SES backgrounds

Ballieux, H., Wass, S., Tomalski, P., Kushnerenko, E., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Johnson, M., & Moore, D. 2016. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology

Even in infancy children from low-SES backgrounds differ in frontal cortex functioning and, by the start of pre-school, they frequently show poor performance on executive functions including attention control. These differences may causally mediate later difficulties in academic learning. Here, we present a study to assess the feasibility of using computerized paradigms to train attention control in infants, delivered weekly over five sessions in early intervention centres for low-SES families. Thirty-three 12-month-old infants were recruited, of whom 23 completed the training. Our results showed the feasibility of repeat-visit cognitive training within community settings. Training-related improvements were found, relative to active controls, on tasks assessing visual sustained attention, saccadic reaction time, and rule learning, whereas trend improvements were found on assessments of short-term memory. No significant improvements were found in task switching. These results warrant further investigation into the potential of this method for targeting ‘at-risk’ infants in community settings.

Allostasis and metastasis: the yin and yang of childhood self-regulation

Wass, S. 2021. PsyArXiv

Most research has studied self-regulation by presenting experimenter-controlled test stimuliand measuring change between a baseline period and the stimulus. But in the real world weare not passive recipients of discrete chunks of external stimulation, to which we in turnrespond; rather, the real world is continuous and we self-regulate by adaptively selectingwhich aspects of the social environment that we attend to from one moment to the next. Here,we contrast two dynamic processes that guide this process – the ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ of self-regulation. First, allostasis, through which we dynamically compensate for change tomaintain homeostasis. This involves upregulating in some situations and downregulating inothers. And second, metastasis, the dynamical principle underling dysregulation. Throughmetastasis, small initial fluctuations can become progressively amplified over time. Wecontrast these processes at the individual level (i.e. by examining moment-to-moment changein one child, considered independently) and also at the inter-personal level (i.e. by examiningchange across a dyad, such as a parent-child dyad). Finally, we discuss practical implicationsof this approach in improving the self-regulation of emotion and cognition, in typicaldevelopment and psychopathology.

Infant effortful control mediates relations between nondirective parenting and internalising-related child behaviours in an autism-enriched infant cohort

Smith, C., Jones, E., Wass, S., Pasco, G., Johnson, M., Charman, & Wan, M. 2021. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

Internalising problems are common within Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); early intervention to support those with emerging signs may be warranted. One promising signal lies in how individual differences in temperament are shaped by parenting. Our longitudinal study of infants with and without an older sibling with ASD investigated how parenting associates with infant behavioural inhibition (8–14 months) and later effortful control (24 months) in relation to 3-year internalising symptoms. Mediation analyses suggest nondirective parenting (8 months) was related to fewer internalising problems through an increase in effortful control. Parenting did not moderate the stable predictive relation of behavioural inhibition on later internalising. We discuss the potential for parenting to strengthen protective factors against internalising in infants from an ASD-enriched cohort.