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Shaping the social brain through early interactions

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SAPIENS (Shaping the social brain through early interactions)

Reporting period: 2019-01-01 to 2020-12-31

The first three years of life are particularly critical for children's long-term development, health and wellbeing, since core brain functions are formed during this period. These first years are also key for the emergence of developmental disorders.
Identifying the mechanisms that act during early childhood to shape individual long-term social development is essential for improving the health and wellbeing of EU citizens, and has far-reaching consequences for social and educational policy. The SAPIENS ITN is approaching this problem from a new perspective by asking how early social interactions tune critical brain functions in early childhood.
The specific scientific and technological objectives are to:
1.Develop novel methods to reveal the dynamics of early social interactions across different settings (at home and in the lab). We will take advantage of wearable, mobile technologies for measuring brain and behaviour to understand the structure of social interactions between children and parents.
2.Determine how the child drives the development of social interactions. We will conduct longitudinal analyses of existing datasets to identify key aspects of child functioning that drive typical and atypical long-term social development.
3.Determine how social partners (caregivers) shape the development of interactions. We will analyse how parental activity affects and promotes infant brain and behaviour development. We will also test how modifications of parental behaviour during early intervention may improve social brain and behaviour development in infants.
4.Determine how the interaction between child and caregiver shapes social brain development. We will measure how very early experiences drive emerging specialisation of social brain networks. We will also use advanced computational and statistical modelling to understand how multiple genetic and environmental factors shape social interactions and later social development.
The first reporting period of SAPIENS was focused on implementing the training and management structure of the project as well as hiring the 15 Early Stage Researchers. After a successful kick-off meeting in Rome (Jan 2019), followed by a well-organised and executed recruitment process, all ESRs were appointed and commenced work by early 2020. Since March 2020 the progress of research has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with multiple ESR projects suffering delays and disruption. Contingency plans have been drawn and executed to mitigate the key risks. Despite these setbacks, the SAPIENS network has achieved important results, including the following:
1.We have developed dual eye-tracking task setups to study attention of the child and the parent live during interactions, which allow real-time tracking of attention allocation during naturalistic interactions of children from different age groups. Other lines of work seek to develop an EEG paradigm for studying in real time the children's brain oscillations in learning scenarios, as well as using wearable accelerometers for studying infant movement during interactions at home and tools for studying trajectories of vocal-motor development for home assessments.
2.We have developed a new coding scheme for multimodal analyses of infant-parent interactions and prepared a new protocol for a parent-mediated intervention for infants at elevated likelihood of autism, which will be tested in the latter part of the project. A protocol for novel neural and cognitive markers of elevated likelihood of autism as well as a protocol for studying neonatal fNIRS activity in response to faces have also been in development.
3. We have analysed selective neural oscillations in response to social stimuli and found new associations with likelihood of developmental disorders. We have also built a computational model of ‘face space’ that allows to search for the area of face space that maximally engages an individual infant. A behavioural version of an experiment using this space has been deployed for online data collection with young children.
4. Finally, we have been analysing dyadic measures of parent-child interactions and their use in predicting brain oscillations and ASD traits, as well as developing machine learning analyses of parent-child interactions for later use in twin studies.
Within the reporting period we have successfully conducted all planned training events, including the first training school in Utrecht on interdisciplinary perspectives on social interactions and on open science practices, followed by two subsequent training schools, which were held remotely, due to pandemic restrictions on travel. The second school (Uppsala) covered multiple research methods for studying social interactions, while the third one (Warsaw) presented methods for real-time and longitudinal modelling of social and cognitive development. Throughout this period the ESRs were encouraged to develop as independent scientists and empower to strategically plan and organise dissemination and communication of research findings and their implications to various audiences and provide opportunities for translation and commercialisation. Additionally, as part of their training, ESRs lead activities related to training schools organisation, consultations, and communication.
SAPIENS brings a theoretically strong and highly original approach to the study of early social interactions. It moves beyond state-of-the-art in multiple ways: 1) it offers a revolutionary new theoretical approach, which places emergent specialisation of the infant brain right at the heart of social interactions; 2) it develops new ways to measure multiple aspects of brain and behaviour in real time during interactions across different contexts (lab and home environment); 3) it focuses on the structure of interactions across multiple points in developmental time with a clear focus on longitudinal designs; 4) it integrates multiple measures to develop advanced, complex models of social development that are extensively tested and validated on large samples of typically and atypically-developing children; 5) it implements these models to predict individual trajectories and long-term developmental outcomes. This will bring much needed progress in understanding how the variability of experience of each individual child predicts its outcomes moving away from the group-level approach towards the individual-level prediction. Finally, 6) it will accelerate clinical translation of basic research to deliver much needed progress in early screening and intervention for children with developmental disorders. Altogether, SAPIENS will provide an integrated outlook on the complexity of early social brain development, which will likely transform healthcare and education and produce significant implications for socio-economic policy on child development. The impact of SAPIENS will be extended through dissemination, public engagement and outreach activities. Our ESRs will be trained in 1) disseminating new scientific knowledge and implementing Open Science practices; 2) engaging a variety of audiences with their research; 3) building industry-academia links; 4) delivering policy outputs for early education and childcare. SAPIENS' dissemination and communication activities are coordinated by a dedicated group of ESRs with multiple activities including live online meetings, updates on the project website ( and social media posts.
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