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University’s ‘ToddlerLab’ could help autism and ADHD be discovered earlier

Birkbeck's researchers hope to monitor brain activity in a special unit

16 April, 2018 — By Tom Foot

SCIENTISTS are monitoring the behaviour of children aged between 18 months and three years old for the first time in a new laboratory being set up by Birkbeck University.

The “ToddlerLab” will assess brain functions in the hope that neurological conditions such as autism and ADHD can be discovered earlier. Often, the conditions are not identified until the children start primary school.

Birkbeck professor Denis Mareschal, who is based at a specialist baby research unit at the Bloomsbury college, said there was a “real black hole” in toddlers’ brain research, adding: “It’s important to identify these disorders as early as possible because this means that we can start to intervene.

He added: “Toddlers are active and dynamic. Unlike babies, they can’t sit on their parents’ laps and keep still. What they want to do is play and explore and meet other friends. The new ToddlerLab will provide us with an exciting facility for toddlers to roam around, interact with peers and behave as they would in the normal world, but all the while wearing specialist equipment that allows us to measure their brain activity.”

The lab, if fully funded, will be equipped with wireless motion trackers, “hairnet” sensors to record brain activity, and a “nap lab” to monitor the effects of sleep on brain activity. There will be a “Cave” where toddlers will be digitally transported into different surroundings to see how they react.

Professor Mareschal said: “Seeing how children react to different environments is very important because many toddlers will only be detected as having disorders when they go to school and they have to interact with their peers. Having lots of other children around brings out the difficulties these children have in engaging what others are thinking and how to respond to them.”

The college say that autism affects around 2.8 million people in this country – while around 5 per cent of children have ADHD.

Birkbeck has been investigating the psychological processes in infants’ brains for 20 years and is credited with identifying the earliest marker for autism in babies, as well as discovering links between Down’s syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease.

Professor Mareschal said: “It’s important to identify these disorders as early as possible because this means that we can start to intervene. We can help the child by putting them in a programme that may help alleviate their symptoms, or by helping their parents to identify a problem and giving them strategies for coping with any difficulties that their children will have, as well as learning new ways of interacting with their children that may circumvent the problems.”

To find out more about Birkbeck’s “crowdfunding campaign” for ToddlerLab equipment, visit https://birkbeck.hubbub.net/p/toddlerlab/

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