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Predicting Socioemotional Development Across the First Year of Life: Early Infant fNIRS and BITSEA

Previous functional neuroimaging research on infant auditory vocal discrimination has found that infants demonstrate preferential activation to their mother’s voice (Imafuku et al., 2014) and emotional tone vs. neutral tone (Cheng et al., 2012). Though it is understood that the ability to discriminate between individuals and emotional expressions is necessary to predict others’ actions and guide behavior within a social interaction (Frith, 2009), little is known about the predictive value of neural response to these cues on socioemotional outcomes. The current study (N = 21; 8 M, 13 F) examined the predictive value of functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS)-measured prefrontal cortical (PFC) neural response to mother’s and stranger’s voices at happy and angry tones in early infancy (Mage = .98 months) on parent-reported infant socioemotional behavior (BITSEA; Briggs-Gowan et al., 2004) at one year (Mage = 13.14 months). Following data collection, a repeated measures GLM identified 4 PFC fNIRS channels as being significantly active in response to the voice task. Bivariate correlations were run across all stimulus conditions on the 4 PFC fNIRS channels with all BITSEA scores. Neural activation in response to mother’s happy voice or stranger’s angry voice in 3 of the 4 PFC fNIRS channels was significantly associated with BITSEA socioemotional outcome scores including autism spectrum disorder risk scores. These results suggest that neural mother-stranger and emotional voice discrimination in the first months of life may be predictive of parent-rated socioemotional outcomes. More specifically, this neural sensitivity in early infancy may serve as a brain-based biomarker of risk for later socioemotional problems or disorders within the first year of life.