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date: 21 October 2018

Summary and Keywords

Human visual development is a complex dynamic psychological/neurobiological process, being part of the developing systems for cognition, action, and attention. This article reviews current knowledge and methods of study of human visual development in infancy and childhood, in relation to typical early visual brain development, and how it can change in developmental disorders, both acquired (e.g., related to at-risk births) and genetic disorders. The newborn infant starts life with a functioning subcortical visual system which controls newborn orienting to nearby high contrast objects and faces. Although visual cortex may be active from birth, its characteristic stimulus selectivity and control of visual responses is generally seen to emerge around six to twelve weeks after birth. By age six months the infant has adequate acuity and contrast sensitivity in nearby space, and operating cortical mechanisms for discriminating colors, shapes, faces, movement, stereo depth, and distance of objects, as well as the ability to focus and shift attention between objects of interest. This may include both feedforward and feedback pathways between cortical areas and between cortical and subcortical areas. Two cortical streams start to develop and become interlinked, the dorsal stream underpinning motion, spatial perception and actions, and the ventral stream for recognition of objects and faces. The neural systems developing control and planning of actions include those for directed eye movements, reaching and grasping, and the beginnings of locomotion, with these action systems being integrated into the other developing subcortical and cortical visual networks by one year of age. Analysis of global static form (pattern) and global motion processing allows the development of dorsal and ventral streams to be monitored from infancy through childhood. The development of attention, visuomotor control and spatial cognition in the first years show aspects of function related to the developing dorsal stream, and their integration with the ventral stream.

The milestones of typical visual development can be used to characterize visual and visuo-cognitive disorders early in life, such as in infants with perinatal brain injuries and those born very prematurely. The concept of “dorsal stream vulnerability” is outlined. It was initially based on deficits in global motion sensitivity relative to static form sensitivity, but can be extended to the planning and execution of visuomotor actions and problems of attention, together with visuospatial and numerical cognition. These problems are found in the phenotype of children with both genetic developmental disorders (e.g., Williams syndrome, autism, fragile-X, and dyslexia), and in acquired developmental disorders related to very preterm birth, or in children with abnormal visual input such as congenital cataract, refractive errors, or amblyopia. However, there are subtle differences in the manifestation of these disorders which may also vary considerably across individuals. Development in these clinical conditions illustrates the early, but limited, plasticity of visual brain mechanisms, and provides a challenge for the future in designing successful intervention and treatment.

Keywords: visual development, brain development, infancy, visual disorders, dorsal stream vulnerability

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