Sensitivity to human faces has been suggested to be an early emerging capacity that promotes social interaction. However, the developmental processes that lead to cortical specialization to faces has remained unclear. The current study investigated both cortical sensitivity and categorical specificity through event-related potentials (ERPs) previously implicated in face processing in 7-month-old infants (N290) and adults (N170). Using a category-specific repetition/adaptation paradigm, cortical specificity to human faces, or control stimuli (cat faces), was operationalized as changes in ERP amplitude between conditions where a face probe was alternated with categorically similar or dissimilar adaptors. In adults, increased N170 for human vs. cat faces and category-specific release from adaptation for face probes alternated with cat adaptors was found. In infants, a larger N290 was found for cat vs. human probes. Category-specific repetition effects were also found in infant N290 and the P1-N290 peak-to-peak response where latter indicated category-specific release from adaptation for human face probes resembling that found in adults. The results suggest cortical specificity to human faces during the first year of life. Encoding of unfamiliar cat stimuli might explain N290 amplification found in infants.
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