Understanding how the human brain develops during the first few months of life is crucial to establishing “best-practice” methods for optimal child development. Comprehensive knowledge of this early brain development is also pivotal in the diagnosis, assessment and mitigation of diseases and disorders as we progress through life.
Yet studying the brain in newborns is incredibly challenging and needs long-term investment, a highly specialised team, and dedicated infrastructure.
For over 20 years the MARCS Institute has brought together experts across engineering, psychology, biology linguistics, and neuroscience to study how speech, language, cognition and social skills develop in these early days, months and years.
By using audio, visual and physical stimulus and applying our state-of-the-art sensors, we have developed a robust understanding of how the brain develops across people from diverse backgrounds and a unique benchmark of how a ‘normal’ human brain functions.
Our research is enabling us to:
- Identify signatures of normal and abnormal brain developments to enable early intervention and minimise impact of developmental disorders.
- Understand nuances between cross cultural cognitive development to enable more culturally reflective testing and analysis of cognitive development.
- Understand how babies learn and the role of play and parents in language development.
- Develop technology and treatments for auditory, visual and cognitive disorders.
- Understand how emerging technology such as Augmented and Virtual reality can be used in aged care settings and to treat conditions impacting memory such as dementia.
- Optimise training – whether in a hospital or defence setting – based on our understanding of how to optimally present information for memory.
- Develop deep neural networks using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) for cognition and language processing.
Our unique approach
Decades of research means we have access to large data sets from longitudinal studies representing diverse populations. This data has enabled us to build a comprehensive picture of cognitive development and provides a window into the brains of human babies as they acquire the building blocks of language.
We use state-of-the-art equipment including eye tracking, heart rate, and electroencephalogram (EEG) technology to research speech perception, speech production, and related skills such as literacy in infants and children.
We apply the knowledge of the developing brain to that of the ageing brain to understand how to test for, and reduce the impact of, cognitive conditions associated with ageing such as dementia.
We bring our understanding of how humans interact with technology and art to develop traditional, as well as augmented and virtual reality, applications to enhance training and teaching.
We have also created the Lifespan Labs within the MARCS Institute to investigate inter-generational processes. Our vision is to include and assess families - infants, toddlers, children, the sandwich generation, and grandparents - and to facilitate a “linking in” with allied health services to maximise impact.
Our fields of interest
- Asssessing language processing and development: Using state of the art sensors and laboratories, combined with longitudinal data, to understand how babies and young children learn language.
- Studying the impact of relationships and play on cognitive development: Uncovering the role of human interaction in cognitive development to improve early life care and interaction.
- Employing augmented and virtual reality: Using this technology as a teaching tool, and in aged care settings, to minimise the impact of cognitive conditions impacting memory such as dementia.
- Understanding the ageing brain: Learning how communication and comprehension change in the ageing brain and how we can incorporate technological and human-driven solutions to reduce the impact of cognitive decline.
Impact built on collaboration
We have established partnerships with the public and private sector to drive both fundamental and translated research including:
- Creating new technologies that could improve quality of life for people living with dementia, and their carers, in collaboration with multi-national technology company NTT Pty Ltd as well as Deakin University.
- Developing evidence-based guidelines for how music can be selected and effectively utilised within the dementia care setting. We have also transformed these guidelines into an online training course for caregivers in collaboration with HammondCare and the Dementia Centre.
- Development of the OZI-SF – a short-form (100-item) version of the OZI checklist developed in consultation with parents of 12–30 months old children from the BabyLab infant research facility and from early childhood centres in western Sydney, to support earlier and more accurate referrals for speech-language pathology.
- Creating the Early Language Inventory (ELI) – a checklist of first words and hand signs for Indigenous children 8-36 months, developed with and for Indigenous families by a large team of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous researchers at Western Sydney University to provide an early communication checklist that acknowledges and respects diverse Indigenous home languages and dialects.
Our research in action
Across MARCS, we are engaged with hundreds of research projects at any given time. MARCS research projects aim to have a profound impact in their particular field and often involve collaboration with local and international researchers. You can explore our current projects in Early Life & Aged Care here.