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Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 10:25 GMT 11:25 UK
Newborns 'can detect eye contact'
Geodesic hair net (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)
Geodesic hairnet - measures brain activity on the scalp
Babies as young as two days old can detect when somebody is looking directly at them, according to a study.

It probably helps infants to establish human links and to develop social skills in later life, say scientists.

Being able to make eye contact is arguably one of the major foundations for social skills.


Our research presents the most compelling evidence to date that we are born prepared to detect socially relevant information

Dr Teresa Farroni
The fact that healthy babies can do this at such an early age suggests the response is in-built rather than learned.

The new research was carried out by an Anglo-Italian team. They showed paired photographs of faces to infants between two and five days old.

In one photograph, the eyes were averted. In the other the eyes looked directly forward.

The researchers found that the babies looked longer at faces they were able to make eye contact with. Their eyes also looked forward more.

Socially relevant

In a second experiment, carried out at Birkbeck, University of London, researchers measured electrical activity in the brain of four-month-old infants.

A device called a geodesic sensor net allowed them to study the infant's brain response to the same photographs.

The babies showed enhanced processing of the faces with a direct gaze.

"Our research presents the most compelling evidence to date that we are born prepared to detect socially relevant information," said lead researcher Dr Teresa Farroni.

The work raises the possibility of being able to detect if a child is at risk of certain developmental disorders by showing them photographs of faces.

In conditions like autism the ability to empathise with others may be impaired. Eye contact too can be affected.

Autism clues

David Potter of the National Autistic Society said there was evidence that individuals with autism used different neural circuitry to process faces.

"What appears to be a simple perceptual task is difficult for individuals with autism," he told BBC News Online.

"Research is under way to try to understand the differences in the brains of people with autism which explain this difficulty.

"If affected individuals spend reduced amounts of time processing faces then they are also failing to develop the social interaction skills that open up the full realm of social life."

But he said the research was unlikely to be able to be used to bring forward diagnosis of autism in infants.

"Autism is a complex condition and cannot be diagnosed through the use of one factor alone," said Mr Potter.

The work is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Birkbeck College would be interested to hear from mothers in London with babies under seven-months-old who might like to take part in the tests. The college can be contacted on (0207) 631 6258.

See also:

24 Nov 00 | Science/Nature
03 May 02 | Health
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