Cognitive Psychologist Zsuzsanna Kaldy
“We know so little about the brains of babies,” says Zsuzsanna Kaldy. “But with improved technology and carefully designed experiments we can learn a lot more.” It was her pioneering spirit and ceaseless pursuit of learning more that led Kaldy to launch the first baby lab at UMass Boston in 2003 to ask some very pertinent questions about the development of human memory.
“We [Kaldy and her research team] are attempting to understand how babies perceive the physical world around them, where they look, and how much visual working memory they possess,” she explains. In essence, Kaldy’s methodology is to use behavioral research to understand developmental neuroscience.
Most recently, her team has been creating behavioral experiments for measuring infant attention and visual working memory via an eye tracker machine.
“The eye tracker,” Kaldy says, “has revolutionized the field” of her research and significantly improved the accuracy of her results. The machine tracks the eye movements of babies while they watch an animation on a computer screen. Parents sit with their babies while the eye tracking machine processes 60 images per second to record where the babies’ eyes are looking on the screen. The tracker feed displays the same animation with a tracer to show the research team what the babies are looking at.
In the animations, designed by Kaldy’s team, the babies are first trained how to match to sample. Three cards appear face down on the screen. A sample card is flipped, and then its match. A reward animation trains the baby to look for the match card. The next animation tests the delay in match-to-sample in the baby. If the baby remembers the location of the matching card, he/she will look there in anticipation. The goal of these experiments is to test young infants’ visual working memory capacity for objects in a scene, and to record their predictive responses so as to more accurately measure their ability to remember. The studies’ results have been nothing short of remarkable.
Kaldy and her team have learned that seven-month-old babies possess a smaller capacity for visual memory, but by ten months these same babies start to remember the location and identity binding of at least one item in the experiment, representing a significant increase in their visual working memory in just three months. But Kaldy believes the current technology still underestimates their ability, requiring even more clever designs and improved technology to achieve even more accurate assessments of their abilities.
Since her arrival at UMass Boston, Kaldy has focused on improving the research “milieu” of her department. One significant development, following years of hard work and planning, has been the implementation of the new PhD Program in Developmental and Brain Sciences. Students selected for admission to the program possess the exceptional skill and motivation necessary for engaging in lab work ranging from cognitive development and psychophysics to neuroendocrinology and behavioral genetics. Additionally, Kaldy’s research continues bringing in grants from significant sources such as the National Institutes of Health. Most recently, her team received a Simons Foundation grant for investigating attentional dysfunction in young toddlers with ASD.
Studying the visual processing abilities of individuals with ASD is one of Kaldy’s major areas of interest. Her research team, along with her UMass Boston collaborators Professors Alice Carter and Erik Blaser, is one of very few groups in the nation to focus on a non-social aspect of autism. In this new project, Kaldy will study how individuals with ASD process visual scenes, which has implications for many other cognitive processes, such as learning language, approaching novel surroundings, and navigating social situations. Her intent is to investigate what is at the core of the attentional dysfunction in ASD. Already, her findings in this area have been ground-breaking. Her latest publications have highlighted that a two-year-old child with ASD is better at target finding than a child without ASD. She is the first scientist to discover this finding about the visual attention of very young children with autism. “What does this mean?” asks Kaldy. “That they focus much harder than a child without autism in our task. More often than not, we only study the deficits in autism.”
This is something positive. Her results are significant for what they reveal about ASD and about how the human brain develops. Despite having been in the field for many years, Kaldy’s enthusiasm for her work is that of a young researcher. “How amazing and how fortunate it is,” she says, “that we can ask these questions of babies. They are at the very beginning of becoming a complex system. How lucky we are to be able to study them.”
Her results demonstrate her talents as a dedicated, productive researcher, one constantly motivated by the challenge of finding answers to some of the biggest questions about the human brain. She imparts her enthusiasm to her students and is in turn motivated by their interest. “They are very talented young scientists,” she says. “And if I can plant a seed in them to love this research, to love the study of the human brain, then I have made a real contribution, I hope, to improving the human condition.”