When does your baby become conscious?

April 19, 2013

Smart kid. A 5-month-old baby, with his mother, prepares for experiments in consciousness (credit: Sofie Gelskov)

New research shows that babies display glimmers of consciousness and memory as early as 5 months old, Science Now reports.

Studies on adults show a particular pattern of brain activity: When your senses detect something, such as a moving object, the vision center of your brain activates, even if the object goes by too fast for you to notice. But if the object remains in your visual field for long enough, the signal travels from the back of the brain to the prefrontal cortex, which holds the image in your mind long enough for you to notice.

Scientists see a spike in brain activity when the senses pick something up, and another signal, the “late slow wave,” when the prefrontal cortex gets the message. The whole process takes less than one-third of a second.

Researchers in France wondered if such a two-step pattern might be present in infants. The team monitored infants’ brain activity through caps fitted with electrodes.

Cognitive neuroscientist Sid Kouider of CNRS, the French national research agency, in Paris watched for swings in electrical activity, called event-related potentials (ERPs), in the babies’ brains. In babies who were at least 1 year old, Kouider saw an ERP pattern similar to an adult’s, but it was about three times slower. The team was surprised to see that the 5-month-olds also showed a late slow wave, although it was weaker and more drawn out than in the older babies. Kouider speculates that the late slow wave may be present in babies as young as 2 months.

This late slow wave may indicate conscious thought, Kouider and colleagues report in Science. The wave, feedback from the prefrontal cortex, suggests that the image is stored briefly in the baby’s temporary “working memory.” And consciousness, Kouider says, is composed of working memory.