Assessing the Feasibility and Validity of Using Eye Tracking to Study Infants’ Cognitive Function in Rural Malawi

 Assessing the Feasibility of Using Eye Tracking to Study Infants’ Cognitive Functioning in Rural Malawi A method to study infant cognition, based on recording eye movements and visual fixation after various visual or other stimuli, has been extensively used with easily accessible infant populations in high-resource settings, such as Europe and North America, but no such data has been collected from infants in low-income countries. This, in turn, has limited the understanding of how environmental risk factors, such as poverty and malnutrition, affect infant-cognitive development in low-income countries.

To assess the feasibility and acceptability of using the cognitive-development measurement technique in a developing-country setting, FANTA partner University of Tampere, in collaboration with the College of Medicine at the University of Malawi, carried out a field test with 37 9-month-old infants in rural Malawi and compared the acceptability of the eye-tracking method and the quality of the eye-tracking data collected with that of 39 Finnish 9-month-old infants. The results demonstrated that the method is feasible and acceptable to use in low-income settings such as rural Malawi.

To further advance the development and validation of the method for use in low-resource setting, the University of Tampere, in collaboration with the College of Medicine at the University of Malawi, recently carried out a follow-up longitudinal, observational study in Malawi to examine how maternal and child nutrition and the duration of pregnancy at birth are associated with children’s cognitive development at 7 and 9 months of age. The results showed no consistent association between non-specific risk markers for early child development and eye-tracking-based assessment of visual and cognitive function at 9 months of age, except circumscribed effects of preterm birth, low weight-for-age at enrollment, and maternal literacy on certain aspects of visual attention. Further research and follow-up assessments are needed to examine the implications of these findings (i.e., whether the results reflect a true lack of association of the studied factors in low-resource settings or a failure to detect an existing association) and of the functional significance and predictive importance of the found associations between risk factors and measures of visual attention/face perception.

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