More Baby Science

This Tuesday, Benji got his first ever cold. On the one hand, I’m pretty amazed we made it 14 months without getting a cold before, especially since we play with other babies pretty often (although nothing like the exposure of a day care). On the other hand, I’m horrified to imagine dealing with six to 10 of these every year, which our caring-for-your-child book says is standard. Standard! Gah! Baths, steamy showers, and vaporizers are all well and good, but snot suckers, saline drops in the nose, and constant Kleenex application elicit vociferous objections. I guess crying will help get more mucus out, and that’s good, right?

Anyway, when it was clear Benji had a cold, I got really sad: Today (Friday) we were scheduled to do another round of Baby Science at the UW’s I-LABS, and I really wanted to do it, but wasn’t sure he’d be healthy enough. Around Benji’s birthday we went to the I-LABS to do a study where the researchers played with him at a table while I held him, and then both of them simultaneously, silently looked at an object off to the side (think of when you see people standing staring at the sky — don’t you want to look up to see what they’re seeing?). They recorded where he looked: Did he look at the object, too? Did he look at me? Did he look elsewhere? Out of three or four times of looking, he followed their gazes once. Apparently that’s pretty normal for 12-month-olds. They’re not real good at gaze-following, whereas 18-month-olds tend to be much better at it. When we did that study, I agreed to have them put Benji on the I-LABS’ list of test subjects, so we’d get contacted for other I-LABS studies.

Well, earlier the I-LABS folks contacted me about doing another study. I arranged to come to the UW today, and happily it worked out that he was well enough to go. The study we did this time involved the researchers putting Benji in an MEG machine, which they use to measure the magnetic signals produced by his brain while they played recordings of words familiar and unfamiliar to him. I’d previously completed a survey rating a long list of words as familiar/unfamiliar, and they made a customized recording for his session. Oh, and we had to wear clothes with no metal at all: No glasses, shoes, or bra with metal clasps for me, no onesie snaps for him. Fortunately, I just discovered a couple regular T-shirts that fit Benji, so we actually had clothes for him to wear.

Before heading in to the awesome instrument room, they set Benji up in a special cap that looks like this:

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The cap held electrodes (I think) near his head, but it looked to me like he was an astronaut. The guy is using a light pen to mark where the cap is on Benji’s head so they can know exactly where the sensors/electrodes/whatever were placed. The gal in the blue and black dress is the researcher whose job it was to entertain Benji. Once that was on and Benji was tolerating it, they popped him into the MEG machine. He sat in a pneumatic high chair (!) that they then rose up and positioned within the instrument:

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I got one rogue picture before they told me cell phone usage could totally screw up the calibration and to put that darn device away. I hastily did. So… yeah, hopefully the data came out OK!

Anyway, for the next 18 minutes, a speaker played words like “car,” “more,” “bubble,” “bird,” “slipper,” and so forth. When they first said “car,” Benji kicked his legs and laughed… although perhaps the entertainer assistant did something amusing. Because all during that time, the entertainer silently played with toys to entertain Benji, and simultaneously a video of kids’ faces also played on a screen. The entertainer did a great job, and several times Benji laughed or reached for toys. Later a video of baby animals came on, and it’s too bad that didn’t go sooner — I’m pretty sure the puppy would’ve held his attention just fine the entire time. When the puppy came on the screen, Benji started panting like a dog (a trick he learned from his doggy friend Harper, a 1.5-year-old yellow lab). The trick was that if he saw me or the entertainment got out of his field of view, Benji would move his head, which had to stay in the machine. Tricky.

Amazingly, we made it through the entire 18 minutes without disaster, and in fact Benji did so well, the invited us back to do an MRI of his brain for another study. They also asked if we could come back for him to demo wearing the cap for a demo day next week. I said yes to the MRI, even though they want him to sleep in the MRI machine (fat chance! This is a baby who sleeps exclusively in his crib, not even in a car seat; AND it’d ruin our entire day or evening), because that sounded really neat. They correlate the MRI imaging to the data collected today, and use that to figure out what parts of his brain were doing what during today’s study. Cool! I had to say no to the cap-wearing demo because timing wouldn’t work out, alas.

So that’s our baby science. Pretty exciting. And Benji’s now spent more time at the UW than your average 14-month-old. I hope he’ll grow up to love scientific research as much as we do!