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It takes a lot of computational power, but you can then start measuring brain activation and estimating changes in blood flow in difficult-to-test subjects.” —Professor Heather Bortfeld

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ommunicating with an infant is as much art as it is science. Even the most observant and attentive parents can struggle to figure out what their babies are thinking and what they’re trying to say. Child development researchers face similar challenges, but the growing and innovative developmental psychology faculty team at UC Merced can handle it. Take Professor Heather Bortfeld, who is developing a solution to the daunting task of understanding deaf infants. Mapping an infant’s brain activity could provide significant insight, but babies don’t lie still enough for MRIs, and it’s unsafe for kids with cochlear implants to get so close to such powerful magnets. Frustrated by the limitations of behavioral research on deaf infants, Bortfeld is turning to technology initially designed for identifying breast tumors, and building a new device for the campus at the same time. The device uses low-amplitude laser technology to measure blood flow like a pulse oximeter. With sensors placed around an infant’s

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UC MERCED MAGAZINE | SPRING 2016

head, Bortfeld said, the device works like a poor man’s functional MRI (fMRI) — and a safe one, at that. “Once you get a whole-head probe built up, with all these lasers coupled together, the resulting scan looks like an fMRI heat map,” she said. “It takes a lot of computational power, but you can then start measuring brain activation and estimating changes in blood flow in difficult-to-test subjects.” By applying stimulus and watching the areas of the brain that activate, researchers can begin to understand what the deaf child is responding to. Bortfeld is a psychologist, not a neurosurgeon. But developmental psychology lends itself to multidisciplinary research, and she was intrigued by the possibility of adding physiological data to her behavioral observations. That inventive spirit made Bortfeld a perfect fit for UC Merced, which has sought to blur — and sometimes erase — the lines between disciplines. She also fits right in with the rest of the developmental psychology faculty members with whom she is already collaborating on projects, and with others on campus who are interested in cognition, language and brain development.

UC Merced Magazine, Spring 2016  

Explore the campus's holistic approach to cognitive science and the many ways in which researchers examine the human and non-human brain.

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