The Development of Face Processing

The primary goal of this competing renewal proposal is to examine how experience contributes to the development and neural bases of face processing. The overarching hypothesis is that experience with faces recruits specific neural circuits that become specialized for processing faces. A specific model of how experience influences the development of face processing – perceptual narrowing – will receive particular attention. In an extension of work conducted under the auspices of NS32976, a series of studies is outlined that examines how the timing, dose, and duration of different types of experience influence the development and neural bases of face processing. Particular attention will be directed toward the infant’s and child’s ability to recognize faces from unfamiliar species (“other-species effect”), unfamiliar races (“other race effect”), unfamiliar gender (e.g., infants reared disproportionately by mothers or by fathers), and unfamiliar ages (i.e., the ability to recognize faces of infants, children or elderly adults, co-varied against experience viewing such faces).  The premise behind these studies is that the perceptual window through which faces are viewed is broadly tuned at birth, and narrows with experience.  To examine the developmental function of this perceptual narrowing, a series of training studies will also be performed.  Building on work currently being performed in the PI’s laboratory, the overarching goal of these training studies will be to ascertain whether the perceptual window can be kept open (or the sensitive period prevented from closing) by enriched experience.  The specific questions to be addressed are:

Specific Aim 1: What is the developmental course of perceptual narrowing?

Specific Aim 2: Can the perceptual window be kept open with training?

Specific Aim 3: What stimuli are included in the perceptual window (how broadly tuned is it?)

Across all studies, the primary means by which brain function will be inferred will be the recording of event-related potentials; various behavioral probes, appropriate to each age group, will also be employed.  With regard to ERPs, particular attention will be paid to face-specific components and as well, the spatial distribution of these components, from which inferences will be drawn about underlying neural sources.