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Sobana Wijeakumar
Brain, Developmental, Social and behavioural

‘How caregivers regulate their behaviours is impacting how their babies detect change’

Editor Jon Sutton meets Dr Sobana Wijeakumar (University of Nottingham).

14 July 2023

Tell us how you've gone from a degree in electronic engineering to psychology.

My transition started in the final year of that undergraduate degree. For my dissertation project, I wanted to apply my skills to health-related research. I had no idea what that meant or what it would entail. I just knew that I was seeking an experience that would allow me more human interaction.

I reached out to several academics. I was introduced to a physiologist who was interested in using a new piece of neuroimaging kit called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure brain responses to visual stimuli. This technique relied on the principle of shining near-infrared light through the head to differentiate oxy and deoxy hemoglobin responses – this provided an idea of how much a particular part of the brain was activated.

I was both fascinated and terrified of the process of collecting data from participants – an experience very different to poring over a circuit board with a soldering iron in hand. I wrote code and created an interface to analyse brain recordings from this machine for my dissertation. I wrapped up my dissertation with the thought that this experience would remain a memory, and that would be that.

So what happened next?

I was forwarded an application for a PhD to work in the same lab. I applied somewhat naively and was accepted. I spent the next three years asking questions about the nature of neurovascular responses to simple and complex visual stimulation. I learnt a lot, but knowledge remained isolated to the visual cortex. By the end of the three years, I knew I wanted to learn more about the rest of this mysterious organ.

I started looking for positions that would use neuroimaging techniques to explore other brain functions – cognitive psychology and developmental psychology. I took up a position in a lab in the U.S. that was trying to use experimental tasks, neuroimaging techniques and computational models to understand brain function and how it would lead to behaviour. This exposure changed my research career – I worked with infants, toddlers, young and older adults studying executive functions, cognitive systems that were responsible for storing information for a short period of time, inhibiting prepotent responses and shifting goals and behaviours flexibly. I was able to watch, sometimes across an entire day of data collection, how executive functions were being built in infants to how these systems were starting to decline in older adults.

The rest is really history – I have stayed in this area of research. Today, I study how these systems emerge and develop in early life and are regulated by caregivers.

What area in particular?

I specifically look at visual working memory – a short-term storage system responsible for storing and manipulating for information from the world around us for a short period of time. We use this system for pretty much any daily life function – reading, driving, conversation, navigation. I started by looking at this function in adults using behavioural and neuroimaging techniques, and then eventually moved to understanding this function in infants using the same techniques.

Now, I would say my primary research focus is to understand the emergence and development of visual working memory and associated functions like response inhibition in infancy and toddlerhood. I am also interested in how these systems are shaped by caregivers and the home environments in which these children grow up in.

Do you think that interest in people and children and the brain has always been there, or have you mostly been interested in the tech, the kit and the methods?

Engineering was my parents’ plan for me because they envisioned I would be able to have predictable and somewhat stable future back where I grew up. It took me a while to figure out what really motivated me. Once I worked that out, I knew I had to follow that line of interest, wherever it took me.

What’s interesting is that I was always fascinated by the impact of individual and contextual differences on behaviour. I grew up as the only child in a family of three and was always a very keen observer of differences in behaviours of everyone around me. Looking back, I think I liked to reflect upon cause and effect quite deeply. So, despite the shifting degree landscapes and exposure to technology, I think I was meant to find my way to what my true interests were!

How important do you think it is that psychologists know about coding and how the equipment that they're using works?

It is very useful. Reflecting on the use of neuroimaging techniques and learning to code to analyse data coming from these techniques is a good response for this question. We know that studying behaviour associated with a cognitive system or process is important. In most cases, especially with adults, it is possible to understand a system or process by conducting several experimental manipulations across studies and studying behavioural responses across these manipulations. That said, it is equally important to study the organ that is responsible for carrying out most of the workload involved in the process. Take infants – they cannot verbalise their thoughts and processes. It is also not possible to easily carry out several experimental studies with the same infants or even different groups of infants. Here, using neuroimaging techniques, we can understand how different brain regions are activated and work together when infants engage in a process. This informs us about mechanism leading up to the behaviour. Another example is in clinical applications such as stroke. It is important to understand the brain area that has been impacted by stroke and how this area is being replenished with blood flow in the weeks following stroke to understand recovery.

Methods and techniques seem to have moved on, it all seems very portable and inobtrusive, even for infants. And presumably it’s cheaper than a method such as fMRI?

Yes, essentially ‘free’ to use after the initial one-off cost of buying the machine, although of course there’s wear and tear over time. That aside, there is an important factor to consider. Even if one is to envision a research environment where MRI is cheap or even free to use, can you imagine using this technique in an ecologically-valid or naturalistic setting such as when you navigate through the world, drive your car, cycle to work or even interact freely with your child or colleague? The answer is no, for the foreseeable future. Thus, we need more portable techniques like fNIRS or EEG to study brain function ‘on the go’. With fNIRS the babies sit in their highchair, or we have portable systems which can go into a backpack for the Mum to wear while the baby's right next to her.

I know you’re working with infants, but imagine if your first memory was going to this place, putting on this strange cap… do you work with children who do wonder what they're doing and ask questions about it?

I have worked with infants, toddlers, and older children. Several things must come together for conducting successful neuroimaging research in these cohorts. A colourful and happy lab space, lots of toys, books, stickers, a friendly research team and creative ideas on how to engage the caregiver and the child together. We have a series of strategies in place with creating positive memories around the cap in our lab – very positive affect, narratives around the ‘cool’ cap, requesting mum to wear her adult cap so they are playing a game, rewarding children with stickers for different milestones, encouraging the caregiver to bring favourite snacks, toys, comfort blankets etc, and mixing and matching tests so that the journey is specific to each child – if they are more shy, we will do a different task, but if they are more curious and engaged, we go to the cap and related task. If some children do not want the cap on them even after a few tries, then we try to gather only their behavioural response so that the family can engage with our research.

And they tend to do this with Mum right there, actively involved?

Yes, we work very closely with the caregiver as they know their child best and we rely on their knowledge to help us navigate tricky spots.

You haven't got an actual kindergarten? I know you work with Line Caes, and she contributed a piece to The Psychologist about the on-site facilities at the University of Stirling.

That’s right, Line is an investigator on the project. Our collaboration predates my current research as I was previously a lecturer at the University of Stirling. And yes, they have an on-site kindergarten that fosters both an excellent learning and teaching environment. It would be great to have a similar set-up here at Nottingham, perhaps, sometime in the future. It might also be seen as useful for staff at the University who have young children. Although if participants were mainly the children of university staff, you introduce a certain kind of bias.

How do you address that bias, to get representative samples?

That's a good question. In our research, we try to advertise through every possible route – schools, nurseries, baby and toddler groups, baby and toddler markets, other local classes, libraries, places of worship, TV, and radio. We heavily relied on social media too – this really helped recruitment. We collect socioeconomic status information from our families, and we appear to have a good spread across our families. That said, it would be fantastic to develop initiatives to promote for diverse engagement.

Do you struggle to involve Dads?

The current focus of my research is on the impact of the primary caregiver. The role of the other caregiver is definitely very interesting. Is it the case that there is an equitable amalgamation of cognitive behaviours from both caregivers or is it that the primary caregiver’s cognition essentially shapes the child’s abilities, with some room for neural plasticity to absorb the second caregiver’s cognition and use it as a happy medium or buffer? Complicated questions with even more complicated answers, possibly. We hope to follow up on this next year!

Tell me more about this main project you’re working on.

It’s called Project NeuroSync. We are interested in understanding how children synchronise with their caregivers across the first few critical years of their life. We started this project last year and invited families who have babies between the ages of 6 and 9 months to visit our lab. We separately studied how infants and caregivers looked at a TV display showing changing and non-changing coloured shapes. We also had caregivers complete some other tasks such as an inhibitory control task… we wanted to understand if how caregivers regulated inhibitory control would impact working memory in their infants. Then, we also studied how babies and caregivers looked at objects and interacted when they played with each other. During all these scenarios, we also collect brain recordings from the baby and the caregivers.

We are currently unpacking all this rich data. Preliminary findings suggest that how caregivers regulate their behaviours leave an impression on their babies’ ability to detect changes and how they modulate underlying brain function – this is important for visual working memory development. This year, the families have come back for the second year. We are interested in seeing how the associations we observed in their first year following birth have shifted, or not.

What's the ideal way to play with an infant in terms of these regulated behaviours and synchronicity? What are we looking for in parent-child interactions?

I’ll try to answer this with the information we have gathered. There is already a lot of important information on striking a balance between baby-led and caregiver-led play. Our findings, perhaps, add to this important body of work by bringing more precision to the interpretation. We find that how caregivers regulate their behaviours is impacting how their babies detect change – both at the level of their looking behaviour but also on function in specific brain areas. Not just that, we find that how caregivers regulate their behaviours in daily-life impacts their baby’s ability to detect change and their underlying brain function – maybe, while caregivers interact with someone else, how they interact with the environment around them.

There could be several outcomes following poor regulation of behaviours. For example, maybe shifting between too many tasks, struggling to stay focused on a task, more intrusiveness or interruption… it is possible that these outcomes might impact children’s neurocognitive development.

It must be gratifying, just seeing these children come back, year after year, developing.

Yes, of course! It is nice to see how much they have grown in the one year. And we have immense gratitude towards our families for their commitment. It can’t be easy to find time to come back and participate in our research and really work with us to engage children. It shows how much they care and are committed to finding out about the research that goes into learning more and more about child development.

We try to keep them in the loop about our findings. In December of last year, we sent out a newsletter to all our parents, giving them an outline of our preliminary findings. We will do this every year. We hope to submit some papers this year from findings from the first year and we will keep everyone abreast of our findings. We have also started collecting their opinions to formulate new research questions, to make sure we integrate both research and community-based approaches.

Towards the end of next year, we plan to hold a session, ideally virtually, where we invite the families, and potentially interested charities, NGOs, to present our findings and gather insight into how we shape our next steps. We’re also starting a pilot study looking at the same cognitive behaviours, but in premature babies. Tracking typical development in children is important. We want to further deepen the impact of this work by looking at parent-child associations in the first critical year after preterm birth.