Developmental changes in the processing of faces as revealed by EEG decoding

Inês Mares, Louise Ewing, Emily K. Farran, Fraser W. Smith, Marie Smith

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Rapidly and accurately processing information from faces is a critical human function that is known to improve with developmental age. Understanding the underlying drivers of this improvement remains a contentious question, with debate continuing as to the presence of early vs. late maturation of face-processing mechanisms. Recent behavioural evidence suggests an important ‘hallmark’ of expert face processing – the face inversion effect – is present in very young children, yet neural support for this remains unclear. To address this, we conducted a detailed investigation of the neural dynamics of face processing in children spanning a range of ages (6–11 years) and adults. Uniquely, we applied multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) to the electroencephalogram signal (EEG) to test for the presence of a distinct neural profile associated with canonical upright faces when compared both to other objects (houses) and to inverted faces. Results revealed robust discrimination profiles, at the individual level, of differentiated neural activity associated with broad face categorization and further with its expert processing, as indexed by the face inversion effect, from the youngest ages tested. This result is consistent with an early functional maturation of broad face processing mechanisms. Yet, clear quantitative differences between the response profile of children and adults is suggestive of age-related refinement of this system with developing face and general expertise. Standard ERP analysis also provides some support for qualitative differences in the neural response to inverted faces in children in contrast to adults. This neural profile is in line with recent behavioural studies that have reported impressively expert early face abilities during childhood, while also providing novel evidence of the ongoing neural specialisation between child and adulthood.
Original languageEnglish
Article number116660
Number of pages12
Early online date18 Feb 2020
Publication statusPublished - May 2020


  • Children
  • Development
  • EEG
  • Face-processing
  • Multivariate pattern analysis
  • N170

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