Home (not) alone – how did children deal with quarantine?

[By: Penny Bounia-Mastrogianni] 

For some of us MOTION early-stage researchers, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was accompanied by moving back to our home countries in a rush and under great uncertainty. I decided to return to Greece and to my family, where, by interacting with my very young sister and other families with children, I realized how many children and adolescents probably had a much harder time mentally coping with the situation than us adults. So I decided to write some thoughts on this challenging reality that many parents and caregivers faced and keep facing.

Many psychologists addressed the public with concern and advice about the ways that parents could take care of their children’s mental health while in quarantine. This advice revealed, among others, three important aspects of children’s life which keep them safe and happy. The first was the necessary structure that children need in their everyday life, which is usually provided by the many activities their days are full of – school, sports, arts or playing at the neighborhood with their friends. With all these activities being stopped, it was really difficult for children – especially the ones in primary school years – to fill their time, but, most importantly, feel safe, in control and it strongly undermined their sense of normality. Thus, there was a demand many parents had to meet, to find productive, or at least fun activities their children could do in a programmed way in order to create some routine. Which comes to the second main aspect, parent routines and working from home. This affected younger and older children differently, with young children not being able to understand why their parents cannot play with them although they are at home all day, while adolescents experienced a lack of personal space and often the need to isolate from a constant interaction with their parents. This last part is connected with a common need for all ages, the need for normal social life, seeing friends and relatives (for instance, young children missed their grandparents which they haven’t seen for months).

Although different children have different resilience abilities, what was more challenging for them in general, in my opinion, is that they were suddenly bombarded with changes and information they could not understand and process, if someone did not bother to do that for them. Adults could read articles, predictions, share their concerns with friends, whereas children often lack the words to express troublesome thoughts. This is probably the reason why many of them manifested these worries behaviorally and bodily, in their sleep schedule or eating habits, as it is shown in the only studies so far which looked into the effect of the COVID pandemic on children’s psychology [1], [2].The need for caregivers to be that person that listens and explains in an efficient way was much greater than usually. And the ability to understand and accept negative feelings proved to be one of the most important skill parents had to master throughout this period, and hopefully made relationships with their children closer and more compassionate. Teachers and people who work with children will be next in helping children return to their routine gently, and we should keep this in mind for the months to come.

 

References
[1] Jiao, W. Y., Wang, L. N., Liu, J., Fang, S. F., Jiao, F. Y., Pettoello-Mantovani, M., & Somekh, E. (2020). Behavioral and emotional disorders in children during the COVID-19 epidemic. The journal of Pediatrics, 221, 264.
[2]Orgilés, M., Morales, A., Delvecchio, E., Mazzeschi, C., & Espada, J. P. (2020). Immediate psychological effects of the COVID-19 quarantine in youth from Italy and Spain.

Research stopped short

[By: Joanna Rutkowska] 

On the first day of February, I have gotten on my flight, happy to be going to Milan for a three-month long secondment. Little did I know that I would be back in the Netherlands long before the three-month period is over.

I received a very warm welcome at the University of Milano-Bicocca from both MOTION PhD students there, Julia and Victoria, and other members of their lab and department. After the initial settling down in my new office, Julia and I resumed work on our collaborative project. We have come up with the idea for it more than a year ago, and we have since been working on it via skype and email. It took us a week to finally make the experiment work like we have wanted, from the technical side and the research side, and we began piloting the task to see if infants can in fact do it. It is an EEG study that involves infants watching visual stimuli with socio-emotional component, so we predicted they would be interested enough to watch it for quite some time. When we tested our first pilot baby, we were so happy! She managed to watch all the trials till the end of the experiment, and we were hopeful that others will do the same. We scheduled several research appointments for the next weeks, and we waited.

As you know already, the coronavirus pandemic in Europe started the earliest in Italy. To be exact, it started in Lombardy region that was also one of the worst hit regions. Milan is the capital city of Lombardy, so when the first reports of cases piling up came in the second half of February, the lab management decided to stop the testing preventatively to ensure that we, the researchers, do not contribute to spreading the virus. As we know now, it was the right decision, since not long from then the universities were closed completely for several weeks.

What does it mean for our research project? Well, it is still stopped as of now. I came back to the Netherlands at the beginning of March, not having completed my secondment yet. We hope to resume testing after summer. I hope I can still make a research visit to the University of Milano-Bicocca, and Julia can still visit me at the Radboud University Nijmegen. However, whether we finish testing on time for our PhD theses is still not known. I am still very grateful to only have been affected by the virus in this way, and I am grateful for the amazing support and care I received from my colleagues, fellow MOTION ESRs, and my supervisors.

A researcher in lockdown

[By: Chiara Capparini]

In this post, I would like to talk about my working-from-home experience so far and go through what a researcher can do without any access to testing facilities. Also, I wish to share some thoughts about remote research with you.

Recently, COVID-19 pandemic has forced the majority of people at home. Not surprisingly, as an early stage researcher I made no exception and more than two months ago my dining table turned out to be my new office. In addition to that, Universities are not among the first organisations to reopen. For this reason, a researcher has to deal with quite a long time away from the laboratories. At least in the UK, most University shut down around mid-March and face-to-face testing might not be doable for several months. So here we are, trying to navigate this experience without precedent.

Since home working started, I noticed that several friends and relatives asked me whether I had something to do, concerned that apart from seeing babies I had nothing else to spend my time with. For an entire year I have indeed been testing babies almost every day. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I had, and I still have, quite a lot to do from home. In more detail, in the past weeks I had the chance to focus more on data processing and analysis, writing up my studies, and planning future projects (with a good number of online meetings and seminars in between). Without this interruption from testing perhaps I would have focused on some of these tasks more heavily towards the end of my PhD. I took this time as an opportunity to wrap up what I achieved in the first half of my project and, in turn, to think where to go from here.

Of course, it has not been such a simple and easy shift. I admit I spent the first weeks quite disoriented, finding hard to stick to a schedule, getting distracted by the news from my home country, and getting back pain from working on my uncomfortable kitchen chair. I accepted to take time to adapt and to get used to this new normal and, to be honest, some days I still find it hard to concentrate and stick to my working routine.

The good news is that – in addition to dealing with the tasks above – there are testing options outside our lab to be explored as well. The scientific community reacted very quickly and researchers who have been testing remotely for quite a while shared their experiences and suggestions to run online studies. Even if I haven’t a direct experience of remote testing yet, I think it may worth to explore this option as a researcher, and there are some links with the aims of MOTION as well.

Generally speaking, remote research can be either moderated or unmoderated. The former relies on video conferencing between the experimenter and the participant, whereas the latter does not require direct interaction. Although not all the experiments we do in the labs are doable these ways (neuroimaging studies are an example), for sure there are some aspects of early development that can be explored remotely, and doing it online might have its own advantages. Among these, online research seems faster, more efficient, and less expensive. Also, researchers may be able to reach a wider sample of participants. For instance, cross-cultural studies may be easier to run than before. What I think it may be really a plus is the opportunity to investigate whether lab results can be generalised to more noisy and naturalistic environments, such as different home environments with their unique characteristics. So why not give it a try?

If you are a parent willing to be involved in remote studies with your child, perhaps it may be worth checking whether the University lab you used to visit in person has gone online. If not, be aware that there are platforms such as the Parent and Researcher Collaborative (https://childrenhelpingscience.com) where researchers from all over the world can post their studies for families to take part.

On the importance of speaking the language of the country you live in

[By: Valentina Barone]

When we decided to become a part of the MOTION Project, it was clear to all of us we would move from our own country. We knew we were leaving there our families, our friends, our favourite food, our MOTHER TONGUE.

From my point of view, the first elements were the ones I was worried about: how much I would miss my mom, my grandma’s pasta, having “aperitivo” with my friends. The idea of living in a country of which I couldn’t understand the official language was almost completely ignored by the naive Valentina I was in the Autumn of 2018.

I thought it was something completely normal, something not that relevant, that could have been overcome without difficulties. Many people I know emigrate to countries where the language spoken doesn’t even share a word with their own mother tongue. How could that possibly have been tough for me, moving to the Netherlands, a country where the language has so many common elements with my beloved Italian? Well, it turned out I was mostly wrong about it.

Read moreOn the importance of speaking the language of the country you live in

The science of Duplo: How blocks can help us understand action planning in young children.

[By: Lisanne Schröer]

Duplo or Lego blocks may have been one of your favourite toys when you were younger. A couple of blocks could create a castle, rocket or boat, with just your imagination as limit to your creations. But these fun blocks can also be very useful for research purposes. For example, Duplo construction blocks can provide us with the ideal way to investigate action planning while keeping our cute little participants entertained.

Read moreThe science of Duplo: How blocks can help us understand action planning in young children.

The keys to a successful collaboration

[By: Julia Mermier] 

This post relates my experience of collaboration with Joanna – the MOTION PhD student from Radboud University – and what I think is essential to make a collaboration successful.

The choice of the collaborator
One of the key to a successful collaboration is the choice of a good work partner. You might have the best research project in the world, if your partner is not competent or if you’re not work-compatible, your project might fail. In the case of the MOTION project, the task wasn’t too hard, as I immediately got along – on a working and personal point of view – with most of the other PhD students. In the end, Joanna and I decided to start a collaboration, as we had the most common interests. And it turned out to be a great choice, as we’re currently carrying out our study together in my university in Milan.

So, how to find the ideal collaborator? First, you have to find someone who has the same scientific interests as you, and who wants to work on the same topic. Then, of course, you also need someone who has good research skills, ideally complementary to yours. But outside of the practical aspects, the personal side is also essential for a successful collaboration.  Working with someone you get along with, with whom you can communicate and work efficiently, but also sit back and laugh when needed, is very important. Because you will spent a lot of time together, and because there will always be difficulties to overcome. Doing all of this in a good atmosphere is so much easier!

Read moreThe keys to a successful collaboration

Why we want to research baby brains?

[By: Sayaka Fujita]

In my last blog post, I wrote about the difficulties of collecting good brain data from babies. It is a challenge, so you may have been thinking, why bother at all?

Some people say babies are boring – they look like doing nothing other than staring (and crying, sleeping and being fed). For me, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Babies are always looking, listening and learning. In short, there is always something going on in their brain. We collect brain data to find out exactly what is happening.

Read moreWhy we want to research baby brains?

Project update

[By: Linda]

In this blog post, I will update you on the last six months. Since the last post, we finally finished data collection of the pre-and-post testing of the longitudinal training study. Immediately after we reached this milestone, we started data collection of the 10-month follow-up. With only 30 more infants to go, we expect all data to be collected by April 2020.

Since October, we have been preprocessing our motion tracking data and trying to understand how to handle this type of data, which turned out to be very frustrating. There is not much known about motion tracking data of three-month-old infants. It was difficult finding the right parameters for filtering, movement unit thresholds, and merging threshold. Another challenge was dealing with the fact that it is difficult to get a three-month-old infant to start reaching from a stationary position. This made finding the exact moment the reach started very challenging. However, as I write this post, I can confidently say that we finally found the right settings and parameters and that we will start data analysis in a few days.

Another big event that happened in the last six months is that we finally submitted our review paper of the sticky mittens paradigm. It feels good to have finally submitted this after a year of reading, writing, and revising.

Inverse Response Function in Infants

[By: Iara de Almeida Ivo]

The physiological reaction to neural activity is modulated by neurometabolic and neurovascular coupling. Increased neural activity triggers an increase in oxygen delivery to the active region a few seconds later.

Figure 1 – Neurovascular Coupling mechanism schematic. Adapted from Schölkman et al.

This reaction can be modulated by measuring the oxygenated haemoglobin and deoxyhaemoglobin expected relative concentration changes in relation to an event in relation to the known canonical model for the haemodynamic response.

Figure 2 – Representation of the Canonical Haemodynamic Response, adapted from Schölkman et al.

Models of this reaction have been created, alike the one in figure (2), from empirical data for adults. Infant studies however, sometimes refer to what came to be known as a IRF or Inverse Response Function, for certain tasks – figure (3).

Figure 3 – IRF adapted from Issard et al.

 

The rationale behind this effect relates to the maturation of the brain, the hemodynamic response increasingly often takes on a canonical shape. This because the known hemodynamic response relies on a complex interaction between the vascular system, neurons and glial cells, all of which undergo considerable maturation throughout infancy. However, since brain maturation is not homogenous between cortical regions, the hemodynamic response may vary from one brain area to another.

If we decompose each of these systems, in order to take a closer look at known metrics.

Grey matter develops most of its volume until the third year of age and in terms of blood supply, it is labelled that for one year old infants the average CMRO2 (Cerebral metabolic rate of oxygen) was 38.3±17.7 μmol/100g/min and was positively correlated with age (p=0.007, slope 5.2 μmol/100g/min per week), although the highest CMRO2 value in this age range was still less than half of the adult level.  (Liu et al. & Solokov et al)

The Cerebral blood volume CBV and Oxygen Saturation Percentage are alto quite variable, not only for infants but also for different cortical structures in same age group infants. (Franceschini et al).

Figure 4 – Cerebral Blood Volume in ml/100gm and Oxygen Saturation Percentages for frontal, occipital, temporal and parietal cortical regions for 6 age groups, adapted from Franceschini et al.

This leads to different proportions and in-homogeneity, depending on age and brain region.

However, inter subject differences do not end there, task difficulty depending on brain region is also relevant parameter to consider.

In conclusion, data baseline adapted and specific to paradigm is even more relevant for Infancy studies, given the inter-subject, inter-cortical structure and task subjective variability of responses. We recommend before the beginning of any functional infancy study, taking a look at the review from Issard et al 2018, which covered over 20 years of infancy reported inverse responses, both in fNIRS and BOLD MRI, assessing that:

“The temporal cortex seems to present canonical responses earlier than the occipital and frontal cortices, and follows a more linear developmental trajectory than the occipital cortex. This latter shows a canonical response at birth, but an inverted response later in infancy.

Finally, the frontal cortex shows more variable responses, depending on stimulus complexity and age of participants. Social stimuli, such as speech and faces, elicit canonical responses earlier than non-social stimuli (such as fruits or flashing lights).”

References:
Scholkmann, F., Kleiser, S., Metz, A. J., Zimmermann, R., Pavia, J. M., Wolf, U., & Wolf, M. (2014). A review on continuous wave functional near-infrared spectroscopy and imaging instrumentation and methodology. Neuroimage, 85, 6-27.

Issard, C., & Gervain, J. (2018). Variability of the hemodynamic response in infants: Influence of experimental design and stimulus complexity. Developmental cognitive neuroscience, 33, 182-193.

Liu, P., Huang, H., Rollins, N., Chalak, L. F., Jeon, T., Halovanic, C., & Lu, H. (2014). Quantitative assessment of global cerebral metabolic rate of oxygen (CMRO2) in neonates using MRI. NMR in biomedicine, 27(3), 332-340.

Sokoloff, L. (1960). The metabolism of the central nervous system in vivo. Handbook of physiology, section I, neurophysiology, 3, 1843-1864.

Franceschini, M. A., Thaker, S., Themelis, G., Krishnamoorthy, K. K., Bortfeld, H., Diamond, S. G., … & Grant, P. E. (2007). Assessment of infant brain development with frequency-domain near-infrared spectroscopy. Pediatric research, 61(5), 546-551.

In lullabies, all magic flows

[By: Aude Carteron]

Infant-directed song (the academic word for lullaby), is a common way to soothe, calm or put babies to sleep. It is found universally across cultures [1].

Babies are little Beethoven-to-be, born with remarkable music perception abilities. A study [2] with neonates revealed that the latter can detect the regularity of beats: recording of their brain activity showed that a particular brain signal was elicited at the time when downbeats were missing.

Read moreIn lullabies, all magic flows