Research at Birkbeck, University of London
Breakthroughs in the understanding of the development of autism and other behavioural conditions could be made thanks to a new laboratory to study toddlers, funded in part by the CareTech Foundation.

Research at the £3.7m Wohl Wolfson ToddlerLab at Birkbeck, University of London will increase the understanding of developmental disorders. The research could lead to new interventions, transforming the outlook for people with these conditions.

The CareTech Foundation has today announced that it is supporting the new ToddlerLab with a grant of £250,000. The new lab will allow researchers to study toddlers while they engage in games and other everyday behaviours with passive sensors on their scalps to register brain activity.

Research at Birkbeck, University of London

Using the latest wireless technologies, the Wohl Wolfson ToddlerLab will enable the advanced scientific study of brain development for children from 18 months to three or four years in an environment simulating familiar surroundings for toddlers. Studying brain activity during sleep will also be possible, meaning scientists will be able to collect valuable data about how sleep impacts on child development.

One example of the cutting-edge technology in the ToddlerLab is a virtual environment known as the “CAVE”. Using Hollywood techniques, CAVE simulates real-world surroundings, such as a farm or a supermarket, and monitors how toddlers’ brain activity changes depending on the world around them.

The new lab will be based at Birkbeck and will help to develop and assess the efficacy of early interventions and explore strategies for supporting the development of children on the spectrum.

The new ToddlerLab will build on discoveries made at Birkbeck’s BabyLab. The BabyLab has led to breakthroughs in the understanding of babies’ brain development but its facilities are less well suited to studying toddlers, who require more space as they carry out various daily activities, including walking and playing.

Research at Birkbeck, University of London

Research previously carried out at the BabyLab has included a study showing that babies who react more strongly to sudden changes in light intensity may be more likely to later be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. It is hoped that the ToddlerLab will lead to similar breakthroughs in the understanding of young children’s brain development so that conditions can be identified and addressed earlier.

Announcing the partnership with Birkbeck, CareTech Foundation CEO Jonathan Freeman said:

“In the care sector, we see the real challenges that come along with developmental conditions like autism and ADHD. Increasing our understanding of how children’s brains develop could make a huge difference in how we help children flourish. Research that allows us to spot signs earlier and improve the effectiveness of interventions could be a real game-changer in boosting children’s futures. At the CareTech Foundation, we’re all really excited about what the research could achieve, and hugely proud to be involved.”

Speaking following the announcement Professor Denis Mareschal, Director of Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, said:

“We’re hugely grateful that the CareTech Foundation has come on board. Their support, along with donations from many others, will allow the ToddlerLab to become a reality. The research conducted at the ToddlerLab will help us build on our understanding of a range of developmental disorders and to develop new interventions.”

Janet Parsons is a PhD researcher at the BabyLab, who is also the mother of a child with autism. She’s enthusiastic about how the ToddlerLab’s research will make a difference to parents like her.

Janet said:

“Becoming a parent for the first time is always difficult, a bit like taking an ‘A level’ without first doing the ‘GCSE’!  But becoming the parent of a child with a developmental disorder you leap from nothing to an advanced degree in childcare!

“We first realised Alex was different between the ages of 1 and 2.  He rarely responded to his name, and although he said a few first words on schedule he never joined them into phrases. Increasingly we noticed similarly-aged friends’ children following simple instructions, whereas Alex often seemed unaware someone was talking to him. Eventually, he was given an autism diagnosis at 3 years.

“We were told early intervention was essential for Alex to make gains. However, we were equally told what worked for one child may not work for another and there was little research evidence into different interventions’ effectiveness. We felt panicked and very guilty, there were various interventions, they needed to be done urgently but no one could guide us, what if we weren’t doing the most appropriate things for our son’s particular needs?

“The ToddlerLab can help us understand how developmental disorders evolve. This will not only help children with developmental disorders to be more able to learn but also, and just as importantly, it will help parents and schools to be more able to teach them.”