Natalie Portman is best known for her roles in Hollywood movies like Star Wars, Cold Mountain and V for Vendetta. What is less known is that she was co-author of a scientific paper on the neuroscience of child development. This is about her research.
Portman, whose real name is Natalie Hershlag, left acting to pursue a psychology degree at Harvard during 2000.
While there she was employed as a research assistant in Prof Stephen Kosslyn’s neuropsychology lab where she got involved in a study investigating the link between frontal lobe development and visual knowledge in infants.
The study investigated object permanence – the ability to understand that objects do not disappear from the world when they are out of sight, something that typically develops in the first year of life.
Researchers have argued that the frontal lobes are particularly important for this skill, but the trouble is, you can’t put babies in conventional brain scanners to easily test the idea. They just wriggle about too much.
This technology relies on the fact that near-infrared light can penetrate the skull, and that blood carrying oxygen, and blood that has given up its oxygen, absorbs the light differently.
The idea is that the device beams light into the frontal lobes, and you can work out how hard this area is working from how much oxygen-rich blood there is.
The advantage is that this technology is safe for children, and can be worn as a sort of high-tech hat, meaning there’s less of a problem if the child being tested moves about.
During the study, infants were shown a toy, which was then hidden under a cloth. Children who have object permanence – who know that it hasn’t disappeared – look for it under the cloth.
Children without this skill just ignore the cloth and look for something else to do, because the memory of the toy is gone.
The study tested 20 infants, every four weeks, from the ages of 5-12 months. To see what changed in the brain as the ability emerged, the researchers compared infrared light absorption from a time when the kids first looked for the toy, to an earlier time, when they just forgot that it existed when it was out of sight.
The team discovered that the frontal lobes suddenly kicked in when children develop the knowledge that hidden objects still exist, providing an understanding of which brain areas are involved in this important mental function.
The study also demonstrated that near-infrared spectroscopy could be used successfully to study the brain development of very young children.
The paper was eventually published in the journal Neuroimage, under Natalie’s real name, with the title ‘Frontal lobe activation during object permanence: data from near-infrared spectroscopy’.
It has since been cited by at least 20 different studies that have built on its findings.
And if you want to read the study in full, it is available as a pdf file at the link below.
pdf of Neuroimage paper.