Emergence of enhanced attention to fearful faces between 5 and 7 months of age

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The adult brain is endowed with mechanisms subserving enhanced processing of salient emotional and social cues. Stimuli associated with threat represent one such class of cues. Previous research suggests that preferential allocation of attention to social signals of threat (i.e. a preference for fearful over happy facial expressions) emerges during the second half of the first year. The present study was designed to determine the age of onset for infants’ attentional bias for fearful faces. Allocation of attention was studied by measuring event-related potentials (ERPs) and looking times (in a visual paired comparison task) to fearful and happy faces in 5- and 7-month-old infants. In 7-month-olds, the preferential allocation of attention to fearful faces was evident in both ERPs and looking times, i.e. the negative central mid-latency ERP amplitudes were more negative, and the looking times were longer for fearful than happy faces. No such differences were observed in the 5-month-olds. It is suggested that an enhanced sensitivity to facial signals of threat emerges between 5 and 7 months of age, and it may reflect functional development of the neural mechanisms involved in processing of emotionally significant stimuli.

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