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.
Noting that various child nutrition and health interventions implemented in different locations have had mixed results, the researchers also conducted a related study that found that participants’ residential location had some influence on the intervention results.