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Research Areas

Infant Social Neuroscience

In the early 2000s a new research discipline called Social Neuroscience was founded, when researchers began to probe the brain basis of human social functioning. Our research during the last ten years has been dedicated to contribute to this flourishing discipline by elucidating the early postnatal development of social information processing during infancy. Specifically, we have been using electroencephalography (EEG)/event-related brain potentials (ERPs) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to learn about the timing and localization of the brain processes involved in early social cognition. Our research has helped to delineate the essential processes implicated in the early development of the social brain. In particular, we have shown that the development of social brain functions in infancy is characterized by a set of key principles: self-relevance, joint engagement, and predictability. This work provides a developmental dimension to the social neuroscience approach and serves as a vital foundation for guiding research in many other laboratories studying early social cognition.

Grossmann, T. (2015). The development of social brain functions during infancy. Psychological Bulletin, 141,1266-87. PDF

Grossmann, T., Lloyd-Fox, S., & Johnson, M.H. (2013). Brain responses reveal young infants’ sensitivity to when a social partner follows their gaze. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 6, 155-161. PDF

Grossmann, T., Cross, E.S., Ticini, L.F., & Daum, M.M. (2012). Action observation in the infant brain: The role of body form and motion. Social Neuroscience, 8, 22-30. PDF

Grossmann, T., & Johnson, M. H. (2007). The development of the social brain in infancy. European Journal of Neuroscience, 25, 909-919. PDF


Emotion Perception from Face, Voice, and Body in Infancy

Our research has revealed that infants’ ability to detect emotional expressions undergoes critical development between the first and second half of the first year, pointing to a sensitive period in emotion processing. Specifically, only older infants are able to pick up on particular emotional expression such as fear, whereas younger infants fail to distinguish between fear and other emotional expressions. Furthermore, our research shows that infants’ ability to sensitively respond to others’ expressions develops around the same time for facial, vocal, and bodily expressions of emotion.

Missana, M., Atkinson, A. P., & Grossmann, T. (2015). Tuning the developing brain to emotional body expressions. Developmental Science, 18, 243-253. PDF

Grossmann, T. (2010). The development of emotion perception in face and voice during infancy. Restorative Neurology & Neuroscience, 28, 219-236. PDF

Grossmann, T., Oberecker, R., Koch, S.P., & Friederici, A.D. (2010).  The developmental origins of voice processing in the human brain. Neuron, 65, 852-858. PDF

Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in early social-emotional development. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 383-403. PDF


Individual Variability in Emotion Processing in Infancy

While there are general developmental changes that occur during the first year of life with respect to emotion perception, there also is considerable variability among infants. Individual differences in emotional sensitivity early in life have been linked to risk and resilience concerning psychiatric diseases such as fear and anxiety disorders. We have been involved in research efforts to detect individual variability in emotion processing in infancy using neuroscientific methods. Our research has shown that genetic variation in neurotransmitter systems, differences in behavioral temperament, maternal empathy, and breastfeeding all contribute in meaningful ways to individual differences in infants’ emotional sensitivity. It is therefore critical to investigate the early development of emotion understanding in the context of intrinsic and extrinsic factors that contribute to individual differences in emotion perception.

Krol, K.M., Monakhov, M., Lai, P.S., Ebstein, R., & Grossmann, T. (2015). Genetic variation in CD38 and breastfeeding experience interact to impact infants’ attention to social eye cues. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112,E5434–E5442. PDF

Rajhans, P., Missana, M., Krol, K.M., & Grossmann, T. (2015). The association of temperament and maternal empathy with individual differences in infants’ neural responses to emotional body expressions. Development & Psychopathology, 27,1205-16. PDF

Grossmann, T., Vaish, A., Franz, J., Schroeder, R., Stoneking, M., & Friederici, A.D. (2013). Emotional voice processing: Investigating the role of genetic variation in the serotonin transporter across development. PLoS ONE, 8, e68377. PDF

Grossmann, T., Johnson, M.H., Vaish, A., Hughes, D., Quinque, D., & Friederici, A.D. (2011). Genetic and neural dissociation of individual responses to facial expressions of emotion in human infants. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 1, 57-66. PDF


Prefrontal Cortex Function in Infancy

Among the specific brain areas involved in the adult social brain, functional activity in prefrontal cortex (PFC), particularly the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), is of special importance for human social cognition and behavior. However, from a developmental perspective, it has long been thought that PFC is functionally silent during infancy, and until recently, little was known about the role of PFC in the early development of social cognition. Our neuroimaging work with infants provides first evidence that mPFC exhibits functional activation much earlier than previously thought, suggesting that the mPFC is involved in social information processing from early in life. This line of work shows that the human brain is fundamentally adapted to develop within a social context.

Grossmann, T. (2013). Mapping prefrontal cortex function in human infancy. Infancy, 18, 303-324. PDF

Grossmann, T. (2013). The role of prefrontal cortex in early social cognition. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7:340. PDF

Grossmann, T. & Johnson, M.H. (2010). Selective prefrontal cortex responses to joint attention in early infancy. Biology Letters, 6, 540-543. PDF

Grossmann, T., Johnson, M. H., Lloyd-Fox, S., Blasi, A., Deligianni, F., Elwell, C., & Csibra, G. (2008). Early cortical specialization for face-to-face communication in human infants. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 275, 2803-2811. PDF


Social Information Processing Independent of Conscious Perception in Infancy

In adults there is cumulating evidence that some social information processing occurs automatically and without conscious awareness. In a series of neuroscience studies, we were able to demonstrate that infants process facial social cues such as fear and eye gaze direction independent of conscious perception. This line of research provides first developmental evidence for adaptive unconscious processes that guide social interactions.

Jessen, S, Altvater-Mackensen, & Grossmann, T. (2016). Pupillary responses reveal infants’ discrimination of facial emotion independent of conscious perception. Cognition, 150, 163-169. PDF  

Jessen, S. & Grossmann, T. (2016). The developmental emergence of unconscious fear processing from eyes in infancy.Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 142, 334-343. PDF

Jessen, S. & Grossmann, T. (2015). Neural signatures of conscious and unconscious emotional face processing in human infants. Cortex, 64, 260-270. PDF

Jessen, S. & Grossmann, T. (2014). Unconscious discrimination of social cues from eye whites in infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111, 16208-16213. PDF