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Seeing it coming: infants’ brain responses to looming danger

Abstract

A fundamental property of most animals is the ability to see whether an object is approaching on a direct collision course and, if so, when it will collide. Using high-density electroencephalography in 5- to 11-month-old infants and a looming stimulus approaching under three different accelerations, we investigated how the young human nervous system extracts and processes information for impending collision. Here, we show that infants’ looming related brain activity is characterised by theta oscillations. Source analyses reveal clear localised activity in the visual cortex. Analysing the temporal dynamics of the source waveform, we provide evidence that the temporal structure of different looming stimuli is sustained during processing in the more mature infant brain, providing infants with increasingly veridical time-to-collision information about looming danger as they grow older and become more mobile.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to all the infants and their parents for taking part in this study. We also thank D. N. Lee for discussion, G. -J. Pepping for providing us with the tau analysis software, S. Houweling and J. F. Léger for programming the looming stimuli and M. Holth for testing assistance.

Author information

Correspondence to F. R. (Ruud) van der Weel.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

The looming stimulus. This movie shows an 8-month-old infant ready for testing and a diagram of our experimental setup (see also Fig. 1). The infant is watching the looming stimuli approaching under three different accelerations. The blue dot moving in the middle of the looming circle represents the infant’s gaze of both eyes collected by the Tobii eye tracker and was used to confirm that the infant was attending the looming stimuli. (MOV 7.29 mb)

VCrL dipole activity. This movie shows VCrL dipole source waveform activity in the O1 region of an 8-month-old infant in response to a medium loom (9.4 m/s2). Activity is shown in slow motion (see running time in milliseconds) for clarity. (MOV 1.13 mb)

VEP surface activity. This movie shows in real-time VEP surface activity in the O1, Oz and O2 region (in blue) in response to a fast loom (21.1 m/s2) for an 8-month-old infant. The same trial is also repeated in slow motion for clarity. (MOV 4.88 mb)

Supplementary 1

(a) Raw EEG data of a single 2s (fast) looming trial displayed using standard 10–20 sites. Note increased activity at sites O1, Oz and O2 as a direct response to the loom, with vertical yellow line marking peak activity. The inserted 3D mapping window visualises a buildup and decline over time of EEG voltage in the visual cortex (0 ms = peak activity at vertical yellow line) (see Supplementary Video 3). (b) Source analysis of the same trial, using a predefined surrogate source model of the visual areas (Scherg 2002), including O1, Oz and O2. Dipoles at these sites were fitted −200:200 ms around peak VEP activity as indicated by yellow line in (a), providing source waveforms (SWF) of the modelled brain regions as a direct measure of their activities on a trial-by-trial basis (centre lower panel). Two dipoles, VCrL (blue curve) and VCrR (red curve), showed consistent symmetrical synchronised activity in response to our looming stimulus. Top right panel shows the relative contribution (position and direction) of each dipole to the model. Bottom right panel shows a multiple-source beamformer image of evoked brain responses to the looming stimulus, revealing involvement of primary visual areas in the occipital cortex and of the right-hemispheric hMT + area (see Supplementary Video 2). (c) Grand average motion VEPs of infants’ responses to slow (in blue), medium (in red) and fast (in black) looms across age groups. The sites shown are predominantly active during the visual processing of the looms. Red dots in model head (nose up) indicate scalp localisation of the sites. (PDF 2.01 MB)

Supplementary Video 1

The looming stimulus. This movie shows an 8-month-old infant ready for testing and a diagram of our experimental setup (see also Fig. 1). The infant is watching the looming stimuli approaching under three different accelerations. The blue dot moving in the middle of the looming circle represents the infant’s gaze of both eyes collected by the Tobii eye tracker and was used to confirm that the infant was attending the looming stimuli. (MOV 7.29 mb)

Supplementary Video 2

VCrL dipole activity. This movie shows VCrL dipole source waveform activity in the O1 region of an 8-month-old infant in response to a medium loom (9.4 m/s2). Activity is shown in slow motion (see running time in milliseconds) for clarity. (MOV 1.13 mb)

Supplementary Video 3

VEP surface activity. This movie shows in real-time VEP surface activity in the O1, Oz and O2 region (in blue) in response to a fast loom (21.1 m/s2) for an 8-month-old infant. The same trial is also repeated in slow motion for clarity. (MOV 4.88 mb)

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van der Weel, F.R., van der Meer, A.L.H. Seeing it coming: infants’ brain responses to looming danger. Naturwissenschaften 96, 1385 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-009-0585-y

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Keywords

  • Looming
  • Infants
  • High-density EEG
  • Theta oscillations
  • Source analysis
  • Tau-coupling analysis
  • Timing in the brain