Andrea Handl is affiliated with the Psychology Department and Research Unit for Parenting and Special Education at the University of Leuven. Having a background in developmental psychology with a focus on early social cognition, Andrea is currently working on the topic of Autism Spectrum Disorders and employment.
Skills and Expertise
Child DevelopmentCognitive DevelopmentSPSSPhoto EditingStatistical Data AnalysisEEGDigital PhotographyElectroencephalography.Event-Related PotentialsPower Point PresentationEye TrackingHigher Education TeachingOccupational TherapyScientific WritingMicrosoft Excel Data AnalysisStatSoft StatisticaGIMPAdobe Premiere ProLightroom
Research Item (12)
Event-related potentials were recorded while infants observe congruent or incongruent grasping actions at the age when organized grasping first emerges (4–6 months of age). We demonstrate that the event-related potential component P400 encodes the congruency of power grasps at the age of 6 months (Experiment 1) and in 5-month-old infants that have developed the ability to use power grasps (Experiment 2). This effect does not extend to precision grasps, which infants cannot perform (Experiment 3). Our findings suggest that infants’ encoding of the relationship between an object and a grasping hand (the action–perception link) is highly specialized to actions and manual configurations of actions that infants are able to perform.
- Jul 2013
We used eye-tracking technique to examine gaze shifts of 9-, 16-, and 24-month-old infants who were presented with still images of a conversation between two individuals facing each other or turning away from each other. The results showed that body orientation, as measured by the face-to-face effect, is sufficient to provide infants with crucial information about others' social engagement.
- Mar 2013
Since their discovery in the early 1990s, mirror neurons have been proposed to be related to many social-communicative abilities, such as imitation. However, research into the early manifestations of the putative neural mirroring system and its role in early social development is still inconclusive. In the current EEG study, mu suppression, generally thought to reflect activity in neural mirroring systems was investigated in 18- to 30-month-olds during the observation of object manipulations as well as mimicked actions. EEG power data recorded from frontal, central, and parietal electrodes were analysed. As predicted, based on previous research, mu wave suppression was found over central electrodes during action observation and execution. In addition, a similar suppression was found during the observation of intransitive, mimicked hand movements. To a lesser extent, the results also showed mu suppression at parietal electrode sites, over all three conditions. Mu wave suppression during the observation of hand movements and during the execution of actions was significantly correlated with quality of imitation, but not with age or language level.
- Mar 2011
Eye gaze is an important communicative signal, both as mutual eye contact and as referential gaze to objects. To examine whether attention to speech versus nonspeech stimuli in 4- to 5-month-olds (n=15) varies as a function of eye gaze, event-related brain potentials were used. Faces with mutual or averted gaze were presented in combination with forward- or backward-spoken words. Infants rapidly processed gaze and spoken words in combination. A late Slow Wave suggests an interaction of the 2 factors, separating backward-spoken word+direct gaze from all other conditions. An additional experiment (n=15) extended the results to referential gaze. The current findings suggest that interactions between visual and auditory cues are present early in infancy.
- May 2010
- International Meeting for Autism Research 2010
Background: In children with autism imitation problems have consistently been found (Williams et al., 2004). Combining the research on imitation in autism with the discovery of mirror neurons led to the hypothesis of a dysfunctional mirror neuron system (MNS) in individuals with ASD (Williams, Whiten, Suddendorf, & Perrett, 2001). Since imitation appears very early in development, infancy seems to be an ideal period to study the relation between imitation in development and mirror neuron functioning. However, until now, research into the MNS with infants remains scarce. Objectives: The aim of this study is to investigate mirror neuron functioning during hand movement, action observation and action imitation in very young children with a diagnosis of ASD and in siblings (age 18-30 months). Suppression in the EEG mu rhythm band is associated with the MNS activity and was previously investigated in adults and children with and without ASD. In this study, we apply a child-friendly paradigm to investigate mu wave suppression during action observation and action imitation in typically developing infants and infants with a diagnosis of ASD and siblings (age 18-30 months). Following Marchall and colleagues (2002) and Stroganova and colleagues (1999), we defined infant mu wave within the 6-9 Hz frequency range. Methods: The experiment consisted of 5 blocks (with 5 different objects) and one free play situation (including all 5 objects) during which brain activity was measured with 32 active electrodes. In each block, the infants observed a moving object (object observation condition) and an experimenter performing hand movements (hand movement condition). Subsequently, infants watched (action observation condition) and imitated (action imitation condition) a simple goal-directed action with each object. At the end of the experiment infants were imitated by the experimenter while playing with the objects (free play condition). Hand movement condition and action observation/imitation were counterbalanced between subjects. Results: Until now, more than 40 infants participated in the study. According to preliminary results, there seems to be mu suppression during action imitation and action observation, but not during hand movement in the ASD group. In the sibling group we found the same results as in the normally developing children group which is mu suppression during action imitation. This means that despite the shared genetic material with their brother or sister with ASD, the siblings show less impairments in the functioning of their mirror neuron system than the ASD group. Given the small number of infants in each group, the results should be interpreted with caution. Conclusions: These preliminary results suggest that we developed a useful paradigm for studying mirror neuron functioning in young children. We can conclude that there is mirror neuron activity in siblings, but the mirror neuron activity seems to be less pronounced in infants with ASD in comparison with typically developing children. Full results and conclusions will be presented at the IMFAR meeting.
- Oct 2009
In a series of four experiments we assessed whether functional properties of the human face, such as signaling an object through eye gaze, influence face processing in 3- and 4-month-old infants. Infants viewed canonical and scrambled faces. We found that 4- but not 3-month-old infants' ERP showed an enhanced face-sensitive N170 component for the scrambled stimulus. Furthermore, when canonical and scrambled faces were gazing toward an object, 4-month-olds displayed an enhanced Negative central (Nc) component, related to attentional processes, for the scrambled face. Three-month-olds did not display any of these effects. These results point to important transition in the first months of infancy and show that triadic cues influence the processing of the human face.
- Jul 2009
The importance of eye gaze as a means of communication is indisputable. However, there is debate about whether there is a dedicated neural module, which functions as an eye gaze detector and when infants are able to use eye gaze cues in a referential way. The application of neuroscience methodologies to developmental psychology has provided new insights into early social cognitive development. This review integrates findings on the development of eye gaze processing with research on the neural mechanisms underlying infant and adult social cognition. This research shows how a cognitive neuroscience approach can improve our understanding of social development and autism spectrum disorder.
- May 2009
- International Meeting for Autism Research 2009
Background: It is quite well known that imitation is impaired in young children with autism spectrum disorder. In primates as well as in humans, imitation has been linked to a group of visuomotor neurons called ‘mirror neurons’, which also fire during action observation. This led to the hypothesis of a dysfunctional mirror neuron system (MNS) in individuals with ASD (Williams et al., 2001). Some support for this hypothesis was found in adults and children, although not all studies found evidence of an impaired MNS in ASD. Research into the MNS with infants remains scarce. Objectives: Suppression in the EEG mu rhythm band is associated with the MNS activity and was previously investigated in adults and children with and without ASD. In this study, we apply a child-friendly paradigm to investigate mu wave suppression during action observation and action imitation in typically developing infants and infants with a diagnosis or marked characteristics of ASD (age 18-30 months). Following Marchall and colleagues (2002) and Stroganova and colleagues (1999), we defined infant mu wave within the 6-9 Hz frequency range. Methods: The experiment consisted of 5 blocks (with 5 different objects) and one free play situation (including all 5 objects) during which brain activity was measured on 32 active electrodes. In each block, the infants observed a moving object (object observation condition) and an experimenter performing hand movements (hand movement condition). Subsequently, infants watched (action observation condition) and imitated (action imitation condition) a simple goal-directed action with each object. At the end of the experiment infants were imitated by the experimenter while playing with the objects (free play condition). Hand movement condition and action observation/imitation were counterbalanced between subjects. Results: 40 infants participated in the study. Preliminary analyses revealed that typically developing infants and infants with (characteristics of) ASD showed significant mu wave suppression on frontal, central, and parietal electrodes during action imitation and play conditions. This suggests that the locations and frequency band were appropriately defined for detecting sensorimotor brain activity. Typically developing infants also displayed mu suppression during the hand movement, and to a lesser extent during the action observation condition. The infants with (characteristics of) ASD showed little mu suppression during the hand movement condition, and none during action observation. Conclusions: These preliminary results support the presence of a mirror neuron system in typically developing infants, especially during the observation of hand movements. Mirror neuron activity seems to be less pronounced in infants with (characteristics of) ASD. Full results and conclusions will be presented at the IMFAR meeting.
- May 2008
- International Meeting for Autism Research 2008
Background: Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are impaired in processing eye gaze and faces. More specifically, it has been suggested that eye gaze processing in children with autism involves different underlying neural mechanisms than in typically developing children. Objectives: We investigated the electrophysiological neural correlates of eye gaze processing and their interaction with facial expressions in children with ASD and typically developing controls. This paradigm has successfully been used with infants (Striano, Grossman, Kopp, Reid, 2006). Methods: We measured event-related brain potentials (ERPs) in 7 children with ASD (6.8 - 9.5 years; 1 female) and 7 age and gender matched controls. We presented children with pictures of angry or neutral facial expressions with direct or averted eye gaze. Data analyses were carried out for the face processing ERP component N170. Results: There were several significant findings: 1. Among children with autism, there was a more negative amplitude for direct compared to averted gaze in the right hemisphere. 2. Compared to the control group, among the children with autism, the N170 peaked later for angry compared to neutral facial expressions. 3. Among the typically developing children, angry faces with direct gaze elicited a greater negativity compared to neutral. Conclusions: Children diagnosed with autism processed eye gaze and facial expressions differently. First, children with autism showed a different N170 response for eye gaze processing compared to controls. This response is close to the one displayed by infants. Second, children with ASD showed delayed neural processing for angry compared to neutral, whereas typically developing showed increased processing for angry compared to neutral. In general, the findings show a differential pattern of the N170 suggesting delayed development with differential processing for eye gaze and emotion in school-aged children with ASD. These findings may be used to aid in the development of new diagnostic tools.