AUTHORS: Maitre NL, Key AF, Slaughter JC, Yoder PJ, Neel ML, Richard C, Wallace MT, Murray MM

Brain Topography, 33(5): 586-599, September 2020


Multisensory processes include the capacity to combine information from the different senses, often improving stimulus representations and behavior. The extent to which multisensory processes are an innate capacity or instead require experience with environmental stimuli remains debated. We addressed this knowledge gap by studying multisensory processes in prematurely born and full-term infants. We recorded 128-channel event-related potentials (ERPs) from a cohort of 55 full-term and 61 preterm neonates (at an equivalent gestational age) in response to auditory, somatosensory, and combined auditory-somatosensory multisensory stimuli. Data were analyzed within an electrical neuroimaging framework, involving unsupervised topographic clustering of the ERP data. Multisensory processing in full-term infants was characterized by a simple linear summation of responses to auditory and somatosensory stimuli alone, which furthermore shared common ERP topographic features. We refer to the ERP topography observed in full-term infants as “typical infantile processing” (TIP). In stark contrast, preterm infants exhibited non-linear responses and topographies less-often characterized by TIP; there were distinct patterns of ERP topographies to multisensory and summed unisensory conditions. We further observed that the better TIP characterized an infant’s ERPs, independently of prematurity, the more typical was the score on the Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile (ITSP) at 12 months of age and the less likely was the child to the show internalizing tendencies at 24 months of age. Collectively, these results highlight striking differences in the brain’s responses to multisensory stimuli in children born prematurely; differences that relate to later sensory and internalizing functions.

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