A lifespan approach to cognition and communication: MARCS BabyLab’s bold vision for Westmead

BabyLab babies and their parents as part of efforts to understand language formation

Effective interactions between people are central to human cognition, connection and wellbeing at all stages of life. From the earliest stages of development, babies begin to hear well before they are born, picking up voices and sounds from the outside world.

By the time a baby is twelve months old, she will have already tuned into to the sounds of her own language(s) and will also be producing around fifty words.

Soon to be based at Western Sydney University’s Westmead Innovation Quarter, researchers at The MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development aim to uncover the lifelong principles that underlie listening and talking, thinking, abstracting, remembering, and interacting across generations.

The MARCS BabyLab, founded in 1999, is one of the top three facilities in the world for understanding child development from the earliest stages of infancy, with a focus on connections to Western Sydney’s diverse, multicultural populations with widely differing linguistic styles and tonalities.

The BabyLab’s research has delivered clear benefits and impact in the health system since its establishment. For example, BabyLab’s research has led to greater awareness of infants’ sophisticated cognitive abilities and of the importance of babies’ earliest experiences. Such research has given rise to early identification and intervention schemes, such as the recent introduction of screening for hearing in all infants within 24 hours of their birth in NSW.

Sue Hespos, Professor at the MARCS BabyLab and the School of Education, works to uncover the earliest evidence of our cognitive capacities in infancy and describes what changes over development.

“Through this process we gain information critical to understanding cognition in general”,” said Professor Hespos.

Co-located with the BabyLab, within the Westmead Innovation Quarter, will be The MARCS Institute’s AgeLab, a research laboratory for pure and applied research, with the goal of understanding how sensing, perceiving, learning, thinking and action change in older age.

Professor Paola Escudero

Researchers in the AgeLab aim to understand social, emotional, and cognitive changes that occur with age, and to develop programs that can help support healthy ageing.

With the move to the new Westmead campus, these two laboratories will formalise their connections, working jointly under the umbrella of ‘MARCS Lifespan Labs’. The co-location and formal collaboration of these two labs will strengthen the multigenerational aspects of the research and combine to bring a whole-of-family approach to understanding how the brains and minds of infants, children, adults and seniors within a broader context of communication and interaction, and what interventions can support individuals, families, and communities across the lifespan.

In addition to more specific laboratory methods, MARCS Lifespan Labs will focus their research activities within customised, home-like research spaces developed at the Westmead campus, to provide opportunities for naturalistic interactions between generations.

In this way, MARCS Lifespan Labs will both intensify their current laboratory-based research, and extend their focus beyond the laboratory to study people in a range of contexts, from the neuroimaging scanner to the living room.

“The Lifespan Labs at Westmead will be safe, comfortable and accessible setting to which we can invite participants of all ages, backgrounds and origins to share with us in understanding the intricate nature of cognitive development and change”,” said Professor Hespos.

Being based at Westmead means researchers from both the BabyLab and AgeLab can collaborate with research teams in Western Sydney University’s Translational Health Research Institute and NICM Research Institute to build innovative systems that integrate cognition, linguistics, and communication into the whole spectrum of human health and wellbeing.

Researchers will also work closely with community groups, early learning centres, allied health services, and schools to ensure the potential benefits for the community are realised.

“The power of formalising links between the BabyLab and AgeLab is that we are enabled to reveal how memory, language and communication patterns are forming in young children while they interact with their parents and even grandparents, who themselves are active participants in the memory-forming and language development process”,” said Dr Celia Harris, Vice- Chancellor's Senior Research Fellow in Cognitive Neuroscience.

“Many phenomena that we think of as developmental processes have lifelong implications for functioning and wellbeing”.”

Success in science is not merely publishing results in journals, but making those results relevant to colleagues, research participants and the broader community. The bold vision for The MARCS Institute is to leverage our new location to offer better outreach to the community.

MARCS researchers engage in outreach by a commitment to open science practices, hosting specialist webinars, providing professional development, and conducting collaborative research with partners from industry and government. This community engagement will help share scientific findings with the public, and in turn, ensure the science is relevant to the community it serves.

The MARCS Institute’s BabyLab and AgeLab together will provide a research hub to understand the miracles of language, cognition, and human communication. MARCS Lifespan Labs will offer a bright future within and well beyond its new home in the centre of Western Sydney’s health precinct at Westmead.


2 June 2021

David Thompson, Media Officer