The infant brain in the social world: Moving toward interactive social neuroscience with functional near-infrared spectroscopy

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Abstract

Typically developing infants rapidly acquire a sophisticated array of social skills within the first year of life. These social skills are largely learned within the context of day-to-day interactions with caregivers. While social neuroscience has made great gains in our knowledge of the underlying neural circuitry of social cognition and behavior, much of this work has focused on experiments that sacrifice ecological validity for experimental control. Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) is a promising methodology for measuring brain activity in the context of naturalistic social interactions. Here, we review what we have learned from fNIRS studies that have used traditional experimental stimuli to study social development during infancy. We then discuss recent infant fNIRS studies that have utilized more naturalistic social stimuli, followed by a discussion of applications of this methodology to the study of atypical social development, with a focus on infants at risk for autism spectrum disorder. We end with recommendations for applying fNIRS to studies of typically developing and at-risk infants in naturalistic social situations.

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