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Tiffany Taylor brings her daughter, Brynn, to the Minnesota State University Moorhead Child Development Lab for a visual perception study. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

Local universities are learning a lot from babies

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Local universities are learning a lot from babies
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FARGO - Local babies are helping further scientific research in Fargo and Moorhead.

Both North Dakota State University and Minnesota State University Moorhead have labs that are actively recruiting babies to participate in their studies.

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Neither study is invasive - both involve watching the babies' reactions to things.

In the Infant Cognitive Development Lab at NDSU, Rebecca Woods is studying babies' cognitive abilities related to attention and memory.

Lisa Nawrot in MSUM's Child Development Lab in the Department of Psychology is studying visual perception in 2- to 5-month-old babies.

Recruitment

Community participation is crucial, and recruiting participants takes up a lot of researchers' time.

"We cannot do what we do without the parents, families and babies," Nawrot said. "That's the hardest part of what we do."

The MSUM lab sends out about 100 brochures a week to recruit families and in a good week might get three or four responses. They also drop off brochures at local child care centers and call families listed in birth announcements.

"Overwhelmingly, the people who contact us are very interested in what we do, and they love their experience," Nawrot said. "It's a question of people not realizing what it is that we do here."

Tiffany Taylor of Moorhead brought her infant daughter, Brynn, to the study because she always watches volleyball games, so Taylor wondered if her vision might be advanced for her age.

"She's been holding her head up and looking at things since the day she was born," Taylor said.

Most NDSU studies include about 100 infants, but some can include as many as 300, according to the Infant Cognitive Development Lab's website. Because so many babies are needed, one study can take several years to complete, the website states.

NDSU recruits participants by using local birth announcements, public searches, information provided by the state Department of Health, and purchasing names from a national organization that collects the information.

They call or send letters to parents. Parents can also sign up on the lab's website.

They typically get anywhere from 6 to 12 percent participation.

"A lot of parents are busy or can't fit into our schedule," Woods said. "Other parents are resistant to having their infants involved in research."

Some parents don't understand that a great deal of what is known about babies is based on research, Woods said.

"The things that you read in parenting magazines, a lot of that is coming directly from research," she said.

Chrissy Hladky of Fargo has had her daughter, Ellory, participate in NDSU's study four times in the past year.

"It's very interesting," Hladky said. "She pays more attention to the study than I had expected she would."

Since participating in the study, Hladky has started paying more attention to her daughter's reactions to things at home, too. Hladky said it's an interesting way to learn about the research, and her daughter seems to have a good time.

Research

Most of NDSU's research looks at babies' ability to determine whether an object is the same or different from one they just saw.

First babies play with toys in a play area.

"What we're trying to find out is how they learn about objects," Woods said.

Then they watch events that seem like magic, such as a ball that appears to change colors as it disappears behind a screen. When babies are surprised, they tend to watch something longer. The researchers measure how long a baby looks at their tricks.

"We get really long looking times only if babies understand that there are two objects," Woods said. "A lot of what we do here is try to find out how they start to learn."

Babies who watch something that could happen might only pay attention for 10 seconds, but babies presented with "magic" situations tend to look for 30 to 60 seconds, Woods said.

"Babies have better memory than most people expect," Woods said. "And the older they get, the better they are at remembering things."

Researchers have also learned:

* Babies learn better when someone shows them an object before handing it to them.

* Babies learn very quickly about the stability of objects.

* Babies learn better about the color and pattern of toys by touching and not just looking at something.

MSUM's Child Development Lab is looking for the connection between babies' ability to perceive depth and the development of their eye-movement systems.

Research in adults has shown that people with eye movement deficits will have trouble with depth perception, Nawrot said.

"The question is, how do those two things develop together?" she said. "What we hope to get out of this research in the future is perhaps a diagnostically relevant test that will show what babies might be at risk very early on for developing this depth-perception deficit based on their eye movement problems."

The tests are conducted by showing babies a series of black-and-white dots that move across the screen. When stared at, people with normal eye movements will see a simple shape pop out.

Using an infrared eye tracker, researchers watch the babies watch the shapes over and over again. When babies become bored, researchers change the stimulus. If babies notice the depth change, they respond by becoming interested in the object again.

"If they're sucking on a pacifier, sometimes it will drop right out of their mouths," Nawrot said. "It's really a startling response."

Babies are then tested for eye movement by watching how well they can follow objects that slowly move across the screen.

The project is about half-way finished.

Students at both universities work in the labs.

Jena Schuler is NDSU's Infant Cognitive Development Lab manager and worked at the lab as a student.

"I didn't understand the full importance of research before I started working in the lab," Schuler said. "It's great. You really learn a lot here."

Kelsey Ihringer was in one of Nawrot's classes and thought it would be interesting to work in her lab.

"It's different from anything that I've done," she said. "I feel like I'm doing something worthwhile. It's just so interesting."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526

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