Research & Study 2015-12-03

Tampere Center for Child Health Research aims to bear fruit in the study of infant development

How fast can an infant’s gaze spot a red apple in a picture? Researchers are now using this simple test to develop new indicators of child well-being in poor countries.

Research Director and psychologist Jukka Leppänen, from the Tampere Center for Child Health Research, has developed new methods that are based on tracking eye movements. The tests can be used to evaluate the attention and development of young infants.

An infant aged 6- to 9-months is shown a picture featuring, for example, a red apple. The first step is to find out how fast the child can spot the apple in the picture. The second step is to add distracting components, such as apples of a different colour to the picture, and to track the infant’s gaze with an infrared light to determine how quickly he or she can then find the red apple.

“The eye movement tests provide information on the infants’ visual attention and face perception. These basic skills develop quickly in the child’s first year and lay the groundwork for learning and interaction with adults,” Leppänen explains.

Previous research in developed countries has shown that various eye movement tests at six months may provide a fairly good predictor of which children will be diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder at the age of three years.

“How the child focuses his or her attention also tells us about social development and cognitive performance,” says Professor Per Ashorn, Director of the Tampere Center for Child Health Research.

Difficult development, bad results?

Members of Leppänen’s and Ashorn’s research groups, especially Researcher Juha Pyykkö and Senior Researcher Ulla Ashorn, are now conducting research in Malawi in East Africa in order to discover whether the results of the picture test are also related to factors that usually predict inferior growth and development. Consistent results from several studies have shown that prematurity, low birth weight, inadequate cognitive stimulation and the mother’s low level of education predict lower than average growth and development.

Data is being gathered from around 450 infants in a longitudinal setting. The infants will be followed up at the age of two years and later on to estimate whether the picture test predicted the child’s actual development.

“If the test does measure development, as we believe it will, it will give us the opportunity to identify deviations from healthy growth earlier than before and enable timely interventions,” Leppänen says.

“This test will hopefully work better than traditional development tests, which can be limited by their cultural specificity and are not well-suited for testing infants who are younger than eighteen months.”

A picture test is not culturally specific

The pictorial test the researchers use in the study is not culturally specific.

The test consists of three stages. The first stage assesses how quickly the infant can find a specific object, while the second stage determines how quickly the infant can find the same object in another spot in the picture. An object is first shown to the child in one place in the picture ten times. It is then switched to the other side of the picture.

In the third stage, the infant is shown the face of a woman who is looking either happy or startled in the middle of the picture. After that, another object is placed at the edge of the picture. Children normally avert their gaze from the face and look at the new object in the picture. If the child is looking at a happy face, he or she will typically look at whatever else there is in the picture. But if the woman is looking startled, it is less likely that the child will disengage his or her gaze to look at the other object in the picture.

“If we are able to confirm that the test works in Malawi, we will develop it further so that it will become completely automated and as cheap and easy to use as possible,” Leppänen explains.

A good test to help all researchers studying child development in poor countries

Leppänen is interested in child development generally and how it can be measured, and Ashorn’s research group investigates child welfare in poor countries.

“Especially in poor countries, the only way we have been able to monitor child welfare has been to follow up on their growth. If the picture test works, it will be an excellent aid – not just to our research group, but to all researchers interested in child welfare in poor countries,” Ashorn explains.

“We would use the test in all intervention studies to measure well-being. At present, we mostly measure children’s physical growth, and even though that is a good method, it is not what we are ultimately aiming at. We want to measure children’s well being and performance on a more general level,” Ashorn says.

In addition to Leppänen’s and Ashorn’s research groups, child psychiatrist and Adjunct Professor Kaija Puura from the University of Tampere and researchers from the University of Malawi are participating in the study.

Text: Pirjo Achté

PHOTO TEXT: Eye tracking tests can be used to learn about how infants pay attention. The tests also help to reveal different aspects of children’s social development and cognitive performance. A picture of a lion was used in the research conducted in Malawi.