While the five senses help us to navigate through our world, how we perceive the faces we see is critical to becoming successful socially, says a Penn State researcher.
Suzy Scherf, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, is heading up a five-year project being funded by a $3.5 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. Scherf and her research team will investigate adolescent-specific changes in face processing before, during and after pubertal development.
Scherf, who also heads up the Laboratory of Developmental Neuroscience at Penn State, says that as we go through puberty and become sexually mature, we begin to perceive peer faces as potential romantic partners. “Faces are the pre-eminent social signal from which we extract information related to the identity, age, sex, attractiveness, emotional state, and intentions of a person. All of these social cues help us anticipate the behavior of others and guide our decisions about how to behave towards them,” Scherf explained.
In the ground-breaking longitudinal study, Scherf and her team will link changes in facial processing with various stages of puberty and pinpoint aspects of puberty that change behaviors. “Our goal is to understand how both the brain and our behaviors reorganize to accommodate these changes,” she said.
The researchers will be testing three groups: approximately 55 pre-pubertal children, 300 adolescents in early and later stages of pubertal development, and 45 post-pubertal young adults.
“From previous research on pre-pubertal children, we know that this age group is more reliant on caregivers than peer groups. We also know young adults are developing more adult relationships and are immersed in evaluating others as potential mates, because they are beginning to think about the idea of children of their own,” said Scherf. “In comparison, the adolescent group is changing the most dramatically, which is why it is our largest test group. Along with the many pubertal changes, they are also learning new roles and developing new social relationships.”
Each group will complete a battery of face-processing behavioral and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tests related to social developmental tasks of early childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood at Penn State’s Social, Life, and Engineering Science Center. The adolescent group will also be tested every three months for up to two years to capture each individual’s specific transition into the next pubertal stage.
Child and adolescent participants will be examined for pubertal staging conducted in a private exam room at the Penn State Clinical Research Center (CRC) by a nurse practitioner, who will be trained by co-principal investigator Lorah Dorn, professor of nursing and pediatrics. Children and adolescents, as well as their parents, will also complete tests such as online questionnaires addressing physical and behavioral development, including questions about how their relationships are changing with parents and peers.
The team will also document behavioral changes to find out how new friendships and the increasing importance of these friendships affect adolescents as they move away from parents to focus more on peer groups.
All of the various tests will be implemented at the start of each new pubertal stage, not age, as has been done in previous research, making this project and the information it uncovers unique. “With every new pubertal stage, we’ll be able to determine how a change in pubertal stage influences performance on these tasks and on the organization of brain networks for processing faces,” Scherf said. “Once we understand the typical trajectories of adolescents and how they become successful adults, we can better understand how disorders such as social anxiety, depression and autism disrupt the process.”
Scherf is one of 37 co-funded faculty members at Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute (SSRI). SSRI also provided seed funding for preliminary work and support through its Quantitative Developmental Systems Methodology Core. Additional Penn State support for the project is being provided by the Child Study Center.
Other researchers on the project are Peter Molenaar, professor of human development and family studies, and Sy-Miin Chow, associate professor of human development and family studies, both at Penn State; and Glenn Roisman, professor and director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.