24 Gennaio 2017

Babies and baby chicks have something in common

Research on animal behaviour helps scientists understanding how the human brain works. A study by the Center for Mind/Brain Studies of the University of Trento published today in Scientific Reports confirms that newborn chicks have a natural predisposition to their mother. Does this occur in children too? The absence of preference for the mother face might be a sign of autism. The study represents a step forward in the early diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders

Babies and baby chicks, what do they have in common? Well, soon after birth both species show visual preference for the faces of who is taking care of them. Both neonates and newly-hatched chicks immediately, instinctively, look for a reliable guide to help them find their way and survive in the world. However, while baby humans need to be fed and taken care of for a long time, chicks are quickly on their feet just after hatching and before having had any experience of the world. This is an ideal state to study their spontaneous predispositions, before they start experiencing the outside world,  and to learn about how their brain works, how our brain works, and about the “social brain”. The study of baby chicks’ behaviours is the starting point for the tests that will later be developed to study humans. These are precious studies because, for example, they allow us to identify pathological variability at an early stage.
In a study published today in Scientific Reports, a journal of the Nature group, a team of Italian researchers coordinated by the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences (CIMeC) of the University of Trento demonstrated that social predispositions – for instance, for features that remind of a face or the shape of an individual of the same species – are genetically determined. Scientists can now continue their research in this direction.
«Variability of behaviours in respect of “social objects” is a typical trait which, in humans, determines a set of social predispositions and can lead to autistic spectrum disorders» explained Elisabetta Versace, researcher at CIMeC and first author of the study. «Knowing that some genetic factors influence the very first reactions of newborn babies to the social environment will allow us to establish the risk of experiencing developmental disorders and plan appropriate interventions. Together with the results achieved by our colleagues at CIMeC, who have recently demonstrated that neonates at high familiar risk of developing autism spectrum disorders exhibit weaker preferences for human faces, this study opens the way to establishing risk factors and early intervention procedures». 
The research study is part of an ERC (European Research Council) project on early predispositions for animate objects coordinated by Giorgio Vallortigara. The study was conducted by Elisabetta Versace of CIMeC with researchers Ilaria Fracasso and Antonella Dalle Zotte of the University of Padua (Dipartimento di Medicina Animale, Produzioni e Salute - MAPS) and Gabriele Baldan of the Istituto Istruzione Superiore Agraria “Duca degli Abruzzi” in Padua.
The test
The project has its origins in the studies conducted by other research groups since the end of the ‘80s. Like other neurobiologists and ethologists have done before, CIMeC researchers worked with newborn chicks that had no experience of the world at all. 
Both baby chicks and babies, soon after birth, show a preference for traits that remind of a familiar face, or something close to it. Just think of emoticons, so widely used in social networks: it only takes two dots and a curved line to represent a smiling face. Being able to recognize these stylized faces is useful to babies and newborn chicks alike to find their way towards someone. 
«We compared the spontaneous preferences of three breeds from Veneto (Padovana, Polverara and Robusta maculata), maintained genetically isolated for at least 18 years (in the framework of a conservation project of Veneto breeds named CO.VA), but raised in the same environment and in the same way» said researcher Elisabetta Versace of CIMeC. The researchers placed in front of three groups of chicks both a full stuffed hen and a “scrambled” hen, a stuffed hen whose parts were attached together in scrambled order. They then let the chicks free to walk toward the stuffed hen or the scrambled hen. What happened? All the chicks showed the same initial preference for the stuffed hen, but soon differences emerged among breeds. The different behaviours that emerged just 5 minutes after the first exposure to social experiences could suggest that the different interaction strategies are genetically determined. «In the next phase of the study, we will investigate this genetic base to understand which specific variants determine the observed behaviours and to what extent».

Read the paper online here: