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Altered cognitive ability of face recognition among infants born during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic

In a recent study posted to the PsyArXiv* preprint server, researchers explored the impact of restrictions during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic on the cognitive ability of face recognition among infants born during the pandemic.

Study: Altered development of face recognition among infants born amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Image Credit: Paulo Vilela/Shutterstock

Public health authorities have mandated particular health restrictions for effective curtailment of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) transmission; however, the restrictions have inevitably altered the environment of newborns and data on the impact of COVID-19 on the cognitive development of infants born during the pandemic is not yet clear.

About the study

In the present study, researchers explored the cognitive impact of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic on infants by investigating the facial recognition abilities of infants born amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The team used the visual pair comparison (VPC) paradigms and familiarization to examine the face recognition performance of infants aged six to 14 months amid the second COVID-19 wave i.e., between February and July 2021. Experiment one investigated the recognition of unmasked faces by 32 infants belonging to local North American communities with the hypothesis that the lack of social/in-person interactions would lead to specialization in infants’ face recognition ability such that younger infants would be able to recognize the faces of strangers. The infants were grouped into two groups of 16 infants each, based on their age: the younger infant group (median age 7.9 months), and the older infant group (median age 12.5 months).

Experiment two examined the recognition of faces by 27 infants from local Canadian communities wearing a mask with the hypothesis that older infants would successfully recognize faces covered by facial masks. In contrast, younger infants may be unable to do so. The infants were divided into two groups of 14, based on their age: the younger group (median age of eight months) and the older group (median age of 12.3 months).

Both experiments were performed simultaneously throughout the period of data collection. Further, the restrictions on interpersonal experiences were confirmed by surveying before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Infants initially saw two similar faces on either side of the image screen.  Five familiarization trials were conducted, each lasting 10 seconds.

The familiarization phase was followed by the test phase, in which the familiarized face and a new person’s face appeared on the screen simultaneously. To assess the infants’ ability of facial recognition, instead of assessing the ability to distinguish between the two faces, the angulation of the faces presented during the two study phases was changed. The familiarization phase faces were presented in the frontal profile and those of the test phase in the ¾ view profile. In experiment two, the test faces wore standard blue surgical masks.

Female faces of the same ethnicity as the infants were used for probing the facial recognition abilities of the infants since they represent the face experiences of infants the most; therefore, more likely to reveal the face recognition abilities of infants. Caucasian and Asian face images were used as stimuli per the ethnicity of the infants, and the ethnicity of the infant’s primary caregiver was considered for the face presented in the case of infants of mixed races.

Images of four models (two Asian and two Caucasian models) were used, and both the novel faces and the familiarized faces were randomized. An animation sound of colourful rings was used to get infants' attention at the commencement of every trial for testing the direction of the infant’s eye movements on the screen. Video recordings were obtained from the caregivers for analyzing the results, and the infants’ looking behaviors were coded.

In addition, after completion of the face recognition study, 70 caregivers were asked about the infants’ everyday interpersonal experiences.


Six- to nine-month-olds but not nine- to 14-month-olds born amid the pandemic recognized unmasked own-race faces and 10 to 14-month-olds but not six- to nine-month-old born amid the pandemic recognized masked own-race faces. In experiment 1, the younger and older infants looked at the test faces for 34 seconds and 32 seconds, respectively, in the familiarization phase. Additionally, the looking time was reduced in the familiarization phase among both infant groups, indicating a pattern of habituation.

Substantial decreases of 1.30 seconds (13%) and 1.45 seconds (14.5%) were observed in the looking times of younger infants and older infants, respectively. The findings indicated that infants of both age groups demonstrated comparable facial learning. In the test phase, younger group infants demonstrated a substantial new face preference (56%), whereas older infants did not, indicative of lower face recognition abilities among older infants.

In experiment 2, younger and older infants looked at the faces for 29 seconds and 31 seconds, respectively, in the familiarization phase. Decreases in looking time during the familiarization phase among all infants demonstrated habituation. The younger and older infants showed substantial decreases of 1.0 seconds (10%) and 0.97 seconds (9.7%) in looking times, respectively, indicative of comparable facial learning among the infants.

Younger infants did not show any substantial visual preferences whereas older infants showed substantial visual preferences toward familiar stimuli (familiarity preference M was 54%), indicating that older infants could recognize masked faces whereas younger infants could not. Out of 70 caregivers, 58 responded and of which, 56 parents reported lower infant interactions with their family members and substantial reductions in infants’ outdoor activities during the pandemic.

Overall, the study findings showed that infantile cognitive development was altered by the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that reduced the infants’ interpersonal interactions.

*Important notice

PsyArXiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

Journal reference:
  • Kim, Kate K., Wei Fang, Anna Liu, Darshan Panesar, and Naiqi G. Xiao. (2022). Altered Development of Face Recognition Among Infants Born Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic. PsyArXiv preprint 2022. doi:10.31234/

Posted in: Medical Science News | Medical Research News | Disease/Infection News

Tags: Coronavirus, Coronavirus Disease COVID-19, covid-19, Eye, Pandemic, Public Health, Respiratory, SARS, SARS-CoV-2, Severe Acute Respiratory, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Syndrome

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Pooja Toshniwal Paharia

Dr. based clinical-radiological diagnosis and management of oral lesions and conditions and associated maxillofacial disorders.

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