Category: Paediatrics

A Restful Sleep for Diabetic Children with New Glucagon Administration


A new treatment has been developed that promises a way to prevent potentially lethal hypoglycaemic episodes in children.

For children with Type 1 diabetes, the risk of experiencing a severe hypoglycaemic episode can be quite high. Undetected drops in blood sugar overnight can result in coma and death — an event known as ‘dead in bed syndrome’. As well as being a threat to the child, parents also suffer psychological stress worrying about the situation and often losing sleep.

In severe situations, glucagon injections can stabilise blood glucose levels long enough for parents to get their child medical attention. But in a new study, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Matthew Webber, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Notre Dame, is rethinking the traditional use of glucagon as an emergency response by administering it as a preventive measure.

The study describes how Prof Webber and his team successfully developed hydrogels that remain intact in the presence of glucose but slowly destabilise as levels drop, releasing glucagon into the system and raising glucose levels.

“In the field of glucose-responsive materials, the focus has typically been on managing insulin delivery to control spikes in blood sugar,” Prof Webber said. “There are two elements to blood glucose control. You don’t want your blood sugar to be too high and you don’t want it to be too low. We’ve essentially engineered a control cycle using a hydrogel that breaks down when glucose levels drop to release glucagon as needed.”

The water-based gels a three-dimensional structure. Prof Webber describes them as having a mesh-like architecture resembling a pile of spaghetti noodles with glucagon “sprinkled” throughout. In animal models the gels dissolved as glucose levels dropped, releasing their glucagon.

Ideally in future applications, the gels would be administered each night before bed, Webber explained. “If a hypoglycaemic episode arose later on, three or five hours later while the child is sleeping, then the technology would be there ready to deploy the therapeutic, correct the glucose imbalance and prevent a severe episode.”

Since research is in extremely early stages, parents and individuals living with Type 1 diabetes should not expect a therapy available anytime soon, Prof Webber cautioned.

“One of the big challenges was engineering the hydrogel to be stable enough in the presence of glucose and responsive enough in the absence of it,” he said. Another challenge was preventing the glucagon from leaking out of the hydrogel’s mesh-like structure. Though the team was successful in this regard, Prof Webber said he hopes to improve stability and responsiveness with further study.

Source: EurekAlert!

Internal Body Sensing Ability Varies with Age

Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

A Chinese study has found that the ability to sense nervous signals such as heartbeat varies with age, peaking in young adulthood, but does not seem to be associated with autism.

Interoception is the ability to process and integrate internal signals originating from one’s body, such as heartbeats and breathing patterns. This ability is important for maintaining homeostasis. Recent findings have suggested that autism spectrum disorders are associated with a wide range of sensory integration impairments including interoceptive accuracy.

However, it is still not clear whether individuals with subclinical features of autism, which only moderately impact daily life, also exhibit similar impairments in interoceptive accuracy. It is also not clear how interoceptive ability and its association with autistic traits varies with age.

In order to address this issue, Dr Raymond Chan’s team from the Institute of Psychology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has developed an innovative paradigm involving eye-tracking measures to examine the multidimensional interoception and autistic traits in different age groups.

In so doing, they recruited 114 healthy university students aged 19–22 and explored the correlations among autistic traits and interoceptive accuracy using an “Eye-tracking Interoceptive Accuracy Task” (EIAT), which presents two bouncing shapes and requires participants to look at the one whiches bounces in time with their heartbeat.

Since this task requires no verbal report or button-pressing, it enables the exploration of interoceptive accuracy in preschool children and individuals with psychiatric disorders or speech impairments.

However, while autistic traits correlated significantly with the ability to describe and express emotion (alexithymia) but not with the different dimensions of interoception such as interoceptive accuracy (performance of interoceptive ability on behavioural tests), interoceptive sensibility (subjective sensitivity to internal sensations on self-report questionnaires) and interoceptive awareness (personal insight into interoceptive aptitude).

They then recruited 52 preschool children aged four to six, 50 adolescents aged 12–16 and 50 adults aged 23–54 to specifically examine the relationship of autistic traits and interoceptive accuracy across these three age groups. The researchers found that interoceptive accuracy evolves from childhood to early adulthood, and then declines with age. The highest average accuracy was seen in 12-16 year olds. The dataset showed that the developmental trajectory of interoceptive accuracy has a reverted U-shape trend peaking around early adulthood.

The findings suggest that interoceptive accuracy significantly differs between typically-developing preschool children, adolescents and adults. The study also highlights the need for future study into preschool children with suspected autism spectrum disorders.

Source: Medical Xpress

Child Mask Study Which Reported High CO2 Levels Retracted

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

A study which generated controversy by suggesting that masks may harm children through exposure to high carbon dioxide levels was retracted on Friday.

The research letter released in JAMA Pediatrics on June 30 had reported finding in a lab environment unacceptably high levels of CO2 by German standards in air inside masks worn by children.

The journal editors cited “numerous scientific issues” in the retraction notice, which also included questions over the applicability of the CO2 measurement device and the validity of the study’s conclusions.

“In their invited responses to these and other concerns, the authors did not provide sufficiently convincing evidence to resolve these issues, as determined by editorial evaluation and additional scientific review,” the notice read. “Given fundamental concerns about the study methodology, uncertainty regarding the validity of the findings and conclusions, and the potential public health implications, the editors have retracted this Research Letter.”

The study drew prompt criticism following its publication. Joseph Allen, MPH, DSc, who studies the impact of carbon dioxide on human health at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, described the study as “terribly flawed”, predicting its retraction on Twitter. He pointed out that the study made no account of the flood of air taken in when children inhale, his key complaint.

The US Centers for Disease Control do not list any known risk wearing facing masks poses to children, and in fact, recently recommended that unvaccinated children wear masks when school reopen later this year. A previous study with adult volunteers had shown short-term but acceptable rises in CO2 when wearing masks,

While many areas of the US have dropped mask mandates, Los Angeles is reinstating its indoor mask mandate regardless of vaccination status as COVID cases and hospitalisations rise, presumably due to the spread of the Delta variant.

Source: MedPage Today

Self-inflicted Firearm Injuries Among Rural Youth Three Times Urban Rates

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Emergency Department visits by youth for self-inflicted firearm injuries were three times more common in rural areas compared to urban ones, a national study has found.
The study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that Emergency Department (ED) visits by youth for self-harm were nearly 40 percent higher in rural areas compared to urban settings. Youth from rural areas presenting to the ED for suicidal ideation or self-harm also were more likely to need to be transferred to another hospital for care, which underscores the insufficient mental health resources in rural hospitals.

“Our study used pre-pandemic data, and we know that increased attention to youth mental health is even more pressing now everywhere, but especially in rural settings to prevent self-harm in youth,” said lead author Jennifer Hoffmann, MD, pediatric emergency medicine physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We need universal screening for suicidal ideation for all children and adolescents age 10 and up who present in the ED to identify youth at risk and intervene before tragedy occurs.”

The study drew on national data on suicidal ideation or self-harm in youth (ages 5-19 years) from a sample of EDs across the country, including those in general hospitals and children’s hospitals. The researchers extrapolated the results to arrive at national estimates.

Dr Hoffmann explained that a number of factors contribute to higher suicide rates and self-harm in rural youth. One of these is access to mental healthcare, which she said is a huge challenge. A lack of paediatric mental health professionals in rural areas is another factor, forcing patients to travel long distances for help. In addition, poor insurance coverage resulting from lower family income and unemployment. Small towns also have anonymity concerns, possibly delaying seeking care until a crisis brings the child to the ED. Firearm ownership is higher in rural firearms, so increased access to firearms may account for the high degree of disparity in self-inflicted firearm injuries.

“We need to improve mental health training for ED providers, allocate more resources and implement policies in rural hospitals on managing young patients who present with suicidal ideation or self-harm,” said Dr Hoffmann. “More widespread use of tele-psychiatry also might help prevent unnecessary transfers to other hospitals. But even more importantly, we need to train primary care providers to help diagnose and treat mental health issues earlier, so we can prevent self-inflicted injuries and death.”

Source: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago

In Utero or Neonatal Antibiotic Exposure Could Lead to Brain Disorders

Image by Ahmad Ardity from Pixabay
Image by Ahmad Ardity from Pixabay

According to a new study, antibiotic exposure early in life could alter human brain development in areas responsible for cognitive and emotional functions.

The study suggests that penicillin alters the body’s microbiome as well as gene expression, which allows cells to respond to its changing environment, in key areas of the developing brain. The findings, published in the journal iScience, suggest reducing widespread antibiotic use or using alternatives when possible to prevent neurodevelopment problems.
Penicillin and related medicines, such as ampicillin and amoxicillin, are the most widely used antibiotics in children worldwide. In the United States, the average child receives nearly three courses of antibiotics before age 2, and similar or greater exposure rates occur elsewhere.

“Our previous work has shown that exposing young animals to antibiotics changes their metabolism and immunity. The third important development in early life involves the brain. This study is preliminary but shows a correlation between altering the microbiome and  changes in the brain that should be further explored,” said lead author Martin Blaser, director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine at Rutgers.

In the study, mice were exposed to low-dose penicillin in utero or immediately after birth. Researchers found that, compared to the unexposed controls, mice given penicillin had large changes in their intestinal microbiota, with altered gene expression in the frontal cortex and amygdala. These two key brain areas are responsible for the development of memory as well as fear and stress responses.

Increasing evidence links conditions in the intestine to the brain in the ‘gut-brain axis‘. If this pathway is disturbed, it can lead to permanent altering of the brain’s structure and function and possibly lead to neuropsychiatric or neurodegenerative disorders in later childhood or adulthood.

“Early life is a critical period for neurodevelopment,” Blaser said. “In recent decades, there has been a rise in the incidence of childhood neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities. Although increased awareness and diagnosis are likely contributing factors, disruptions in cerebral gene expression early in development also could be responsible.”

Whether it is antibiotics directly affecting brain development or if molecules from the microbiome travelling to the brain, disturbing gene activity and causing cognitive deficits needs to be determined by future studies.

Source: Rutgers University-New Brunswick

80% of Childhood Asthma Hospital Presentations are Preventable

Image by Bob Williams from Pixabay
Image by Bob Williams from Pixabay

Based on a comprehensive Australian survey, approximately 80 percent of asthma-related hospital presentations in school-aged children are potentially avoidable through a standardised comprehensive care pathway for children with asthma.

These preventative measures include using evidence-based clinical guidelines, ensuring that there is an asthma action plan in place; regular follow-up with GP; provision of asthma education to parents/carers; and establishing a community-based approach for continuity of care.

Senior author Dr Nusrat Homaira, respiratory epidemiologist at UNSW Sydney said, “During our research, we surveyed 236 nurses and 266 doctors across 37 hospitals in all 15 local health districts (LHDs) across New South Wales (NSW) to identify the existing care pathway following discharge from hospital for children with asthma.”

This study by researchers at UNSW Sydney identified major variations in the existing asthma care pathway, including:

Use of asthma clinical guidelines and Asthma Action Plan: Although clinical guidelines and Asthma Action Plans (AAPs) were used across all hospitals, on average, there were four to six different types of documents used in each (LHD), between hospitals in the same LHD and within departments in the same hospital. Such variations can be confusing for clinicians, as noted by a survey participant: “Conflicting advice given to asthma patients between general practitioners, emergency departments and sometimes paediatricians; patients are then confused about what to do in exacerbation of symptoms.”

GP follow-up: In most LHDs (75 percent) parents/carers were advised to have their child followed up with their GP within two to three days after hospital discharge, but in some areas, follow-up appointments could be recommended for over six days post-hospitalisation. Parents/carers were reportedly responsible for organising follow-up with their GP with no system to ensure they in fact attended.

Asthma education for parents/carers of asthmatic children: Formal asthma education (27 percent of respondents) were seldom provided to parents/carers during hospital stays; limited to asthma device techniques and rarely involved key topics such as basic knowledge of asthma, asthma control and the importance of regular medical review.

Communication with schools/childcare services: When children with asthma were discharged from hospitals, only four percent of the surveyed staff reported that schools or childcare services were notified of the child’s recent hospital presentation.

Community services integration: The majority of participants (55 percent) were unaware of any community services for children with asthma in their local areas.

The survey identified marked variations in asthma care and management for children within different health districts, different hospitals in the same district and different departments within the same hospital in. The findings highlight opportunities to improve the health outcomes in children with asthma and reduce unnecessary burden on health systems from preventable asthma hospital presentations.

Source: EurekAlert!

Journal information: Chan, M., et al. (2021) Assessment of Variation in Care Following Hospital Discharge for Children with Acute Asthma. Journal of Asthma and Allergy. doi.org/10.2147/JAA.S311721.

Young Boy’s Triumph Over Rare Heart Condition

Photo by Danijel Durkovic on Unsplash
Photo by Danijel Durkovic on Unsplash

Hannah Lewis was expecting to learn the sex of her first child at 20 weeks of her pregnancy. Anxious about becoming a mother at just 19, Lewis was thrilled when she learned she was having a boy.

However, with a worried look on her face, her doctor told her that the baby’s organs looked healthy – except for his heart.

The baby was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, or HLHS, a rare condition where the heart’s left side is underdeveloped, doubling the workload for the right side. Days later, doctors at a children’s hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, confirmed the diagnosis.

But Lewis said her faith gave her the strength to believe she was meant to raise this child as a single mother, as well as her own experiences being raised by a single mother herself.

The rest of the pregnancy was filled with checkups and tests but remained uneventful. Then, at 37 weeks, doctors realised he was developing foetal hydrops, a life-threatening condition in which an abnormal amount of fluid accumulates in the tissue around the lungs, heart or abdomen, or under the skin.

Even in shock from induced labour followed by a caesarean, she remembers hearing her son’s first cries:

“They let me see him for just a second,” she said. “I loved him at first sight obviously, but I was super scared because they took him directly to the heart cath lab and for like 12 hours, we didn’t know what was going on. I was very sick so they wouldn’t let me go see him.”

She named him Bennett after learning the moniker means “God’s gift of hope” or “little blessed one”.

“It was so fitting for what he was about to face,” Lewis said.

HLHS is usually treated with either three different surgeries at certain stages of development or a heart transplant.

Because of the complications introduced by foetal hydrops, Bennett Sayles was 6 days old when he underwent his first open-heart surgery. Although the procedure went well, Bennett remained in critical condition on a ventilator. Then, when he was 2 months old, he had a stroke.

After three open-heart surgeries, 9 month old Bennett had stabilised enough to go home. But shortly before he was discharged, he went into cardiac arrest, and was without a heartbeat for six minutes.

“Then, out of nowhere, his heartbeat came back and it was strong,” Lewis said.

Two weeks later, days before his first Christmas, Bennett went home for the first time. After he turned 2, Bennett underwent the second HLHS surgery, which didn’t work and days later, he needed a fifth open-heart surgery.

Some weeks later he went home, but in hours, Bennett was back in the emergency room with staph infection in his chest. However, Bennett made it home again in time for Christmas. And ever since that series of setbacks, things have improved for him.

“His mental capacity is anywhere from 3 to 5 years old, but he’s got this amazing personality,” Lewis said. “He’s just got such a caring heart. When he’s in the room, he really does light it up and he changes the way you see things. I’m inspired every day because of how amazing he is and he doesn’t let anything hold him back or stop him.”

Two years ago, Bennett’s doctors determined that he would never be a candidate for the other surgeries needed to treat HLHS. He could, however, become eligible for a heart transplant.

“It’s debatable whether he’ll get there, but having known Bennett for the last nine years is not surprising at all that he has progressed to this point,” said Dr. Gerald Johnson, the boy’s paediatric cardiologist. “One of the beauties of working with kids is that they fight and they work to get better, and they work through things in ways that we as adults don’t necessarily do. Bennett’s been a particular fighter on that score and his mother is very proactive and in tune with his needs.”

Raising Bennett has taught Lewis and her family to focus on the present. “We don’t know what’s in store for Bennett,” Lewis said. “He could live his whole life like this or we can have him just a few more years. We love every minute we get to have with him.”

Source: American Heart Association

Spotting Self-harming Risk for Adolescents a Decade in Advance

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Researchers have revealed two subgroups of self-harming adolescents and have shown that those self-harming risk can be identified almost a decade before they begin self-harming.

The team, based at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, found that while sleep problems and low self-esteem were common risk factors, there were two distinct profiles of young people who self-harm – one with emotional and behavioural difficulties and a second group with different risk factors.

Between one in five and one in seven adolescents in England self-harms, such as by cutting themselves. Though self-harm is a significant risk factor for later suicide attempts, many do not plan suicide but face other harmful outcomes, including repeatedly self-harming, poor mental health, and risky behaviours like substance abuse. 

Despite its prevalence and lifelong consequences, there has been little progress in the accurate prediction of self-harm, and until recently, little research in the area.

Drawing from a nationally representative UK birth cohort of approximately 11 000 individuals, the Cambridge team picked out adolescents who reported self-harm at age 14. With machine learning analysis, they were able to establish profiles of self-harming young people, with different emotional and behavioural characteristics. This information enabled them to identify risk factors present in early and middle childhood. 

Since the data tracked the participants over time, the researchers could distinguish factors that appear at the same time reported self-harm, such as low self-esteem, from those that came before it, such as bullying.

The analysis showed that there were two distinct subgroups among young people who self-harm, with significant risk factors manifesting as early as age five, almost a decade before self-harming. Both groups were likely to experience sleep difficulties and low self-esteem reported at age 14, but other risk factors differed between the two groups.

The first group tended to have a long history of poor mental health, as well as bullying before self-harming. Their caregivers were also more likely to have their own mental health issues.

With the second group, however, self-harming was harder to predict early in childhood. One of the key signs was a greater willingness to take part in risk-taking behaviour, linked to impulsivity. Research suggests that these tendencies may make the individuals less likely to consider alternatives to self-harm. Relationship factors with their peers were also important for this subgroup, including feeling less secure with friends and family at age 14 and worrying more about the feelings of others as a risk factor at age 11.

First author Stepheni Uh, a Gates Cambridge Scholar, explained: “Self-harm is a significant problem among adolescents, so it’s vital that we understand the nuanced nature of self-harm, especially in terms of the different profiles of young people who self-harm and their potentially different risk factors.

“We found two distinct subgroups of young people who self-harm. The first was much as expected – young people who experience symptoms of depression and low self-esteem, face problems with their families and friends, and are bullied. The second, much larger group was much more surprising as they don’t show the usual traits that are associated with those who self-harm.”

The findings suggest the possibility of predicting who is most at risk of self-harm up to a decade in advance, creating a window of opportunity for intervention.

Principal investigator Dr Duncan Astle said: “The current approach to supporting mental health in young people is to wait until problems escalate. Instead, we need a much better evidence base so we can identify who is at most risk of mental health difficulties in the future, and why. This offers us the opportunity to be proactive, and minimise difficulties before they start.

“Our results suggest that boosting younger children’s self-esteem, making sure that schools implement anti-bullying measures, and providing advice on sleep training, could all help reduce self-harm levels years later.

“Our research gives us potential ways of helping this newly-identified second subgroup. Given that they experience difficulties with their peers and are more willing to engage in risky behaviours, then providing access to self-help and problem-solving or conflict regulation programmes may be effective.”

Source: University of Cambridge

Journal information: Uh, S et al. Two pathways to self-harm in adolescence. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; DOI: 10.1016/j.jaac.2021.03.010

Earliest Childhood Memories Date Back to Two and a Half

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

People’s earliest childhood memories they can recall are on average from just two-and-a-half years old, according to a new study published in the journal Memory.

It was previously held that the earliest memories are from three-and-a-half years old. Research on earliest memories dates back to the late 1800s, when it was first noted that most adults lack memories from the first 3 to 4 years of their lives, a phenomenon later termed infantile or childhood amnesia.

The evidence for the lower age of earliest memories is presented in a new 21-year study, which followed on from a review of already-existing data.

“When one’s earliest memory occurs, it is a moving target rather than being a single static memory,” explained lead author Dr Carole Peterson, a childhood amnesia expert from Memorial University of Newfoundland.

“Thus, what many people provide when asked for their earliest memory is not a boundary or watershed beginning, before which there are no memories. Rather, there seems to be a pool of potential memories from which both adults and children sample.

“And, we believe people remember a lot from age two that they don’t realise they do.

“That’s for two reasons. First, it’s very easy to get people to remember earlier memories simply by asking them what their earliest memory is, and then asking them for a few more. Then they start recalling even earlier memories – sometimes up to a full year earlier. It’s like priming a pump; once you get them started its self-prompting.

“Secondly, we’ve documented those early memories are systematically misdated. Over and over again we find people think they were older than they actually were in their early memories.”

Dr Peterson has conducted studies on memory for over two decades, focusing on the ability of children and adults to recall their earliest years.

This latest study reviewed 10 of her research articles on childhood amnesia followed by analyses of both published and unpublished data collected in Dr Peterson’s laboratory since 1999. This comprised 992 participants, and memories of 697 participants were then compared to the recollections of their parents.

The finding shows that children’s earliest memories date from before when they think it happened, backed up by their parents.

‘Telescoping’ memories

The evidence from this research to move our potential memory clock is “compelling”. For example, when reviewing a study which interviewed children after two and eight years had passed since their earliest memory they were able to recall the same memory, however in the subsequent interviews reported a later age as to when they occurred.

“Eight years later many believed they were a full year older. So, the children, as they age, keep moving how old they thought they were at the time of those early memories,” explained Dr Peterson, from the Department of Psychology at Memorial University.

The finding is due to something in memory dating called ‘telescoping’, she believes.

“When you look at things that happened long ago, it’s like looking through a lens.

“The more remote a memory is, the telescoping effect makes you see it as closer. It turns out they move their earliest memory forward a year to about three and a half years of age. But we found that when the child or adult is remembering events from age four and up, this doesn’t happen.”

She says, after combing through all of the data, it clearly shows that people recall much more of their early childhood, a lot farther back, than they think they do, and helping to access those memories is fairly simple.

“When you look at one study, sometimes things don’t become clear, but when you start putting together study after study and they all come up with the same conclusions, it becomes pretty convincing.”

This lack of clarity is a limitation of her research, she acknowledges, one which is also common to all research done to-date in the subject area.

“What is needed now in childhood amnesia research are independently confirmed or documented external dates against which personally derived dates can be compared, as this would prevent telescoping errors and potential dating errors by parents,” Dr Peterson said.

She is currently doing research on this with verified dating, both in her laboratory and elsewhere to further confirm the answer to this long-debated question.

Source: Taylor & Francis Group

Journal information: Peterson, C., (2021) What is your earliest memory? It depends. Memory. doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2021.1918174.

Children Struggle to Recognise Expressions of People with Facemasks

Image by pedro_wroclaw from Pixabay

sA new study has shown that children between the ages of 3 and 5 have difficulty in recognising the emotions of people wearing surgical masks. This collateral effect from this  measure to prevent COVID transmission could influence the correct development of children’s capabilities of social interaction.

To provide guidance for decision-makers, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF compiled a document discouraging exposure to the use of facemasks when dealing with children aged up to five years old. In addition, even for older children, WHO recommends weighing up the benefits of wearing facemasks in against potential negative impacts that could include social and psychological problems, and difficulties in communication and learning.

To investigate such possible negative impacts, a study was carried out by the U-Vip (Unit for Visually Impaired People) research team led by Monica Gori at the IIT- Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Technology). The findings were published in Frontiers in Psychology.

A research team led by Monica Gori at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) focused on the pre-school age group, helping define the measures that can be taken to reduce the impact of the use of surgical masks amongst children. While the wearing of facemasks is not mandatory from 3 to 5 years of age, children are in any case exposed to the use of such preventive measures in various everyday social and educational contexts.

The IIT researchers prepared a quiz containing images of people with and without facemasks, and displayed them on screens to 119 individuals comprising 31 children aged between 3 and 5 years old, 49 children between 6 and 8 years old, and 39 adults between 18 and 30 years old. The participants, independently or with parental assistance in the case of the youngest participants, were asked to try to recognise the faces’ expressions, with and without facemask, conveying different emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear and anger.

When those faces were covered with a facemask, the 3-5 years olds only managed to recognise facial expressions conveying happiness and sadness 40% of the time. The percentages were higher for other age groups: 6-8 years olds had a 55-65% success rate, and 70-80% adults. Generally, however, all age groups displayed some difficulty in interpreting these emotions expressed while the face was partially covered by a facemask. There were better results with other expressions, but the pre-school age children still had the greatest difficulty.

“The experiment was performed in the earliest phases of the 2020 pandemic, and at that time facemasks were still a new experience for everyone,” said Monica Gori. “Children’s brains are highly flexible, and at the moment we are performing tests to ascertain whether children’s understanding of emotions has increased or not.”

“In the study, we worked with children and adults with no forms of disability”, explained Maria Bianca Amadeo, IIT researcher, “of course, these observations are even more important when considering children affected by disabilities.” 
“Indeed”, added co-author Lucia Schiatti, IIT researcher, “for example visual impairment implies difficulties in social interaction. For such individuals in particular, it will be even more necessary to concentrate on possible preventive measures or specific rehabilitation activities”.

Further research is needed over the next few years to assess the actual impact of this mask wearing on the ability of children with and without disabilities to interact. In the meantime, the findings suggest the use of transparent facemasks for all operators in contact with children in the 3-5 year-old age group, or developing training activities to teach children how to recognise emotions by looking at the eyes.

Source: News-Medical.Net

Journal information: Gori, M., et al. (2021) Masking Emotions: Face Masks Impair How We Read Emotions. Frontiers in Psychology. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.669432.