Better fine motor skills with delayed cord clamping

The importance of the umbilical cord not only for the fetus but for newborn infants too was shown by Swedish researchers several years ago, in a study that received great international acclaim. In a follow-up study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics they have now been able to show an association between delayed cord clamping (DCC) and children’s fine motor skills at the age of four years, especially in boys.

Several years ago, in a clinical study comprising 400 newborns, Dr. Ola Andersson and colleagues demonstrated that the risk of iron deficiency at the age of four months was considerably lower in infants whose umbilical cords were clamped and cut three minutes after birth (‘delayed cord clamping’, DCC) than in those whose cords were removed within 10 seconds ('early cord clamping’, ECC). The newborns in the study were well-nourished babies born after full-term pregnancies to healthy mothers.

'If the cord is left in place for three minutes, the blood continues to flow into the newborn’s circulation. The baby receives about a deciliter of extra blood, which corresponds to two liters in an adult,’ says Dr. Andersson, a researcher at Uppsala University and pediatrician in Halmstad.

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Months before their first words, babies’ brains rehearse speech mechanics

Infants can tell the difference between sounds of all languages until about 8 months of age when their brains start to focus only on the sounds they hear around them. It’s been unclear how this transition occurs, but social interactions and caregivers’ use of exaggerated “parentese” style of speech seem to help.

University of Washington research in 7- and 11-month-old infants shows that speech sounds stimulate areas of the brain that coordinate and plan motor movements for speech.

The study, published July 14 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that baby brains start laying down the groundwork of how to form words long before they actually begin to speak, and this may affect the developmental transition.

“Most babies babble by 7 months, but don’t utter their first words until after their first birthdays,” said lead author Patricia Kuhl, who is the co-director of the UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. “Finding activation in motor areas of the brain when infants are simply listening is significant, because it means the baby brain is engaged in trying to talk back right from the start and suggests that 7-month-olds’ brains are already trying to figure out how to make the right movements that will produce words.”

Kuhl and her research team believe this practice at motor planning contributes to the transition when infants become more sensitive to their native language.

The results emphasize the importance of talking to kids during social interactions even if they aren’t talking back yet.

“Hearing us talk exercises the action areas of infants’ brains, going beyond what we thought happens when we talk to them,” Kuhl said. “Infants’ brains are preparing them to act on the world by practicing how to speak before they actually say a word.”

In the experiment, infants sat in a brain scanner that measures brain activation through a noninvasive technique called magnetoencephalography. Nicknamed MEG, the brain scanner resembles an egg-shaped vintage hair dryer and is completely safe for infants. The Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences was the first in the world to use such a tool to study babies while they engaged in a task.

The babies, 57 7- and 11- or 12-month-olds, each listened to a series of native and foreign language syllables such as “da” and “ta” as researchers recorded brain responses. They listened to sounds in English and in Spanish.

The researchers observed brain activity in an auditory area of the brain called the superior temporal gyrus, as well as in Broca’s area and the cerebellum, cortical regions responsible for planning the motor movements required for producing speech.

This pattern of brain activation occurred for sounds in the 7-month-olds’ native language (English) as well as in a non-native language (Spanish), showing that at this early age infants are responding to all speech sounds, whether or not they have heard the sounds before.

In the older infants, brain activation was different. By 11-12 months, infants’ brains increase motor activation to the non-native speech sounds relative to native speech, which the researchers interpret as showing that it takes more effort for the baby brain to predict which movements create non-native speech. This reflects an effect of experience between 7 and 11 months, and suggests that activation in motor brain areas is contributing to the transition in early speech perception.

The study has social implications, suggesting that the slow and exaggerated parentese speech – “Hiiiii! How are youuuuu?” – may actually prompt infants to try to synthesize utterances themselves and imitate what they heard, uttering something like “Ahhh bah bah baaah.”

“Parentese is very exaggerated, and when infants hear it, their brains may find it easier to model the motor movements necessary to speak,” Kuhl said.

Babies born with drug withdrawal symptoms on the rise

The number of infants born in the United States with drug withdrawal symptoms, also known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), nearly doubled in a four-year period. By 2012, one infant was born every 25 minutes in the U.S. with the syndrome, accounting for $1.5 billion in annual health care charges, according to a new Vanderbilt study published in the Journal of Perinatology.

S W Patrick, M M Davis, C U Lehman and W O Cooper. Increasing incidence and geographic distribution of neonatal abstinence syndrome: United States 2009 to 2012. Journal of Perinatology, April 2015 DOI: 10.1038/jp.2015.36

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Whites of Their Eyes: Study Finds Infants Respond to Social Cues From Sclera

Humans are the only primates with large, highly visible sclera – the white part of the eye.

The eye plays a significant role in the expressiveness of a face, and how much sclera is shown can indicate the emotions or behavioral attitudes of a person. Wide-open eyes, exposing a lot of white, indicate fear or surprise. A thinner slit of exposed eye, such as when smiling, expresses happiness or joy. Averted eyes, as well as direct eye contact, can mean several things. So the eye white, or how much of it is shown and at what angle, plays a role in the social and cooperative interactions among humans.

Adult humans are well-attuned to social cues involving the eye and use them, along with a great range of other facial and body features, to respond appropriately during social interactions. This sensitivity to eye cues is hard-wired into the brain of adults as they respond to social eye cues even without consciously seeing them.

But it is unclear whether the ability to unconsciously distinguish between different social cues indicated by the eyes exists early in development and can therefore be considered a key feature of the human social makeup.

A new University of Virginia and Max Planck Institute study, published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that the ability to respond to eye cues apparently develops during infancy – at seven or so months.

“Our study provides developmental evidence for the notion that humans possess specific brain processes that allow them to automatically respond to eye cues,” said Tobias Grossmann, a University of Virginia developmental psychologist and one of the study’s authors.

Grossmann and his Max Planck Institute colleague Sarah Jessen used electroencephalography, or EEG, to measure the brain activity of 7-month-old infants while showing images of eyes wide open, narrowly opened, and with direct or averted gazes.

They found that the infants’ brains responded differently depending on the expression suggested by the eyes they viewed, which were shown absent of other facial features. They viewed the eye images for only 50 milliseconds – which is much less time than needed for an infant of this age to consciously perceive this kind of visual information.

“Their brains clearly responded to social cues conveyed through the eyes, indicating that even without conscious awareness, human infants are able to detect subtle social cues,” Grossmann said.

The infants’ brain responses displayed a different pattern to sclera depicting fearful expressions (wide-eyed) to non-fearful sclera. They also showed brain responses that differed when viewing direct gaze eyes compared to averted gaze.

“This demonstrates that, like adults, infants are sensitive to eye expressions of fear and direction of focus, and that these responses operate without conscious awareness,” Grossmann said. “The existence of such brain mechanisms in infants likely provides a vital foundation for the development of social interactive skills in humans.”

The infants in the study wore an EEG cap, like a small hat, which included sensors that could detect brain signals. Infants were sitting in the laps of their parents during the testing.

A moving story of organ donation…

Gray’s Donation   (Radiolab Podcast)

 A donation leads Sarah and Ross Gray to places we rarely get a chance to see. In this surprising journey, they gain a view of science that is redemptive, fussy facts that are tender, and parts of a loved one that add up to something unexpected.

Before he was even born, Sarah and Ross knew that their son Thomas wouldn’t live long. But as they let go of him, they made a decision that reverberated through a world that they never bothered to think about. Years later, after a couple awkward phone calls and an unexpected family road trip, they managed to met the people and places for whom Thomas’ short life was an altogether different kind of gift.

Thomas Gray (Photo Credit: Mark Walpole)

Photo by @TimLaman on assignment for @NatGeo at the International Animal Rescue center in Ketapang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia.  These baby orangutans are being cared for at this center, and are being taken by wheelbarrow from their night cages to a forest play area where they will spend their day learning skills to survive in the wild. Unfortunately, many baby orangutans are still kept illegally as pets, and obtained by killing their mothers in the wild.  When confiscated, they end up at centers like this that do their best to care for them and train them for living in the wild some day.  It is a severe challenge, but some of them may make it to live in the wild. #Borneo, #Orangutan, @TimLaman@thephotosociety

A ‘hands-on’ approach could help babies develop spatial awareness

A study from the Department of Psychology published today found:

  • Changes in the way the brain processes touch in the first year of life
  • Babies start keeping track of their hands are when their arms move around from 8 months
  • Crossing the hands confuses the mind in young babies
  • The way we perceive touch in the outside world develops in the first year of life

The research, from Goldsmiths’ InfantLab, suggested that babies’ tactile experiences could be important for developing their sense of place in the world around them.

The InfantLab research team carried out their study on 66 babies aged from six to ten months old.

Babies felt harmless ‘buzzes’ on their arms

In the study, babies felt little tactile ‘buzzes’ on their hands first with their arms in an uncrossed position and then in a crossed position, while their brain activity was recorded through an EEG (electroencephalography) sensor net.

This is one of the first pieces of research to focus on the development of 'touch perception’, which is crucial for investigating how babies learn to perceive how their own bodies fit into the world around them.

Dr Andy Bremner, InfantLab Director, explained: “We discovered that it takes time for babies to build up good mechanisms for perceiving how they fit into the outside world. Specifically, early on they do not appear to perceive the ways in which the body changes when their limbs, in this case their arms, move around." 

Dr Silvia Rigato, researcher on the project, commented: "The vast majority of previous studies on infant perception has focussed on what babies perceive of a visual environment on a screen and out of reach, giving us a picture of what babies can do and understand when in couch potato mode.”

“Our research has taken this a step further. As adults we need good maps of where our bodies and limbs are in order to be able to act and move around competently. It seems these take time to develop in the first year, and we didn’t know that before.”

The full research paper 'The neural basis of somatosensory remapping develops in human infancy’ was published in the journal Current Biology.