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Preemies and Brain Development: A New Study Says They Catch up by the Teen Years

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Babies who are born prematurely are monitored closely to track their development, especially their cognitive development, as they grow.  A new study published in The Journal of Pediatrics has found that most of these babies, by the time they are teens, are able to perform in cognitive tests as well as teens who were born at full term. The study found that the family and social environment a child is raised in is far more predictive than their gestational age at birth.

More from ScienceDaily on the study, which was conducted by Australian researchers:

“Every year, 10% of Australian babies are born preterm, and many studies have shown that these children often have cognitive difficulties in childhood,” says one of the lead authors of the study, Dr Julia Pitcher from the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute.

“This new study has some positive news. We looked at the factors that determine cognitive abilities in early adolescence, and found that whether or not you were born preterm appears to play a relatively minor role. Of significantly more importance is the degree of social disadvantage you experienced in your early life after birth, although genetics is important,” Dr Pitcher says.

The study, conducted by Research Officer Dr Luke Schneider, assessed the cognitive abilities of 145 preterm and term-born young people now aged over 12. He also assessed data on social disadvantage at the time of birth and at the time of the cognitive assessment.

“The results of our study provide further proof that those born at term tend to have better cognitive abilities — such as working memory, brain processing efficiency and general intellectual ability. But the postnatal environment seems to be playing an important role in whether or not a preterm child is able to overcome that initial risk of reduced brain development,” Dr Schneider says.

Image: Preemie, via Shutterstock

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Study: Mom’s Fears Passed to Newborns Through Smell

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Mothers who have specific fears and anxieties may inadvertently pass them along to their days-old newborns through an unlikely method–smell.  A new study published in the journal Proceedings National Academy of Sciences tested the role of smell in fear transfer by exposing  rats to mild shocks while they were in an environment scented with peppermint oil.  Later, the same rats gave birth, and the pups’ fear responses were tested, measuring the activity of the part of the brain called the amygdala, when they were exposed to the same scent.  The pups, the study found, showed a fear reaction at the mere whiff of peppermint.

Newsweek has more:

“It was really surprising to us that…it could be so early and could be so lasting,” said [psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and lead researcher Jacek] Debiec, pointing out that infants generally do not form lasting memories unless experiences are repeated during the first few days of life, a concept called infantile amnesia. “Here it was a single exposure and it was enough for these newborn pups to create lasting memories,” added Debiec.

When researchers gave pups a substance that blocked activity in the amygdala, according to the study, the baby rats did not learn the fear of peppermint smell from their mothers. This could help mental health experts find ways to prevent children from learning certain fear responses from their mothers.

“Infants can learn from their mothers about potential environmental threats before their sensory and motor development allows them a comprehensive exploration of the surrounding environment,” says the six-page study.

Some mother rats tried to plug the tubing so that the smell wouldn’t come through, a behavior that Debiec found interesting and wants to study further.

Playing With Baby: Memory Building Activities
Playing With Baby: Memory Building Activities
Playing With Baby: Memory Building Activities

Image: Boy smells something bad, via Shutterstock

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Include Kids with Disabilities in the Classroom for Language Benefits

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

A new study that followed 670 preschool-aged children in Ohio for a year is urging that integrating children with disabilities, who are enrolled in special education programs in school, into regular-ability classrooms may have a remarkable impact on the special needs’ kids language skills over the course of a school year.  Laura Justice, co-author of the study and professor of teaching and learning at The Ohio State University, says that the results should encourage schools who are considering inclusion models where children with disabilities are placed in the same classroom as peers who are developing normally.  More from Science Daily:

“Students with disabilities are the ones who are affected most by the language skills of the other children in their class,” Justice said.

“We found that children with disabilities get a big boost in their language scores over the course of a year when they can interact with other children who have good language skills.”

In fact, after one year of preschool, children with disabilities had language skills comparable to children without disabilities when surrounded by highly skilled peers in their classroom.

“The biggest problem comes when we have a classroom of children with disabilities with no highly skilled peers among them,” Justice said. “In that case, they have limited opportunity to improve their use of language.”

Justice added that highly-skilled children’s language abilities were not negatively affected by having the special needs children in their classrooms.

Image: Preschool letters and numbers, via Shutterstock

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AAP: Vaccinate At-Risk Infants, Kids Against Meningitis

Monday, July 28th, 2014

Infants and children who are at particular risk of contracting the serious infection called meningitis should receive a vaccine at an early age and receive routine vaccinations through their college-aged years, according to an updated recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the largest organization of pediatricians in the United States.

The update is the first time the group has made a statement on “meningococcal” vaccines since 2011, and it notes that since its last update, three such vaccines have been approved for use in infants.  Though the guidelines don’t urge the vaccines for every young child (the current standard of care is to begin vaccination at age 11), they do recommend early vaccination for children aged 2 months and older who have immune deficiencies, are missing spleens, or have sickle cell disease or other higher infection risks.

More from HealthDay.com:

“We needed to have new recommendations so that pediatricians would understand how to use these vaccines in young infants and children, since they’re now available,” said guidelines author Dr. Michael Brady, associate medical director at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

“We’re telling pediatricians that we don’t feel it’s necessary to give this vaccination routinely to young children,” he added, “but for children with select risks, it’s a good vaccine to give.”

The updated meningococcal recommendations are published online July 28 in the journal Pediatrics.

Meningococcal disease is linked to a variety of infections, including meningitis and pneumonia. Meningitis, an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord, strikes between 800 and 1,200 people in the United States each year, according to the National Meningitis Association.

Image: Infant vaccine, via Shutterstock

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What the Annual ‘Kids Count’ Report Discovered About U.S. Kids

Friday, July 25th, 2014

The annual “Kids Count” report that measures the well-being of American children based on 16 indicators of economic, educational, health, and family welfare, has found encouraging improvements in several areas nationwide, chiefly a rising number of children who are attending preschool, and a steady decline in the number of kids who lag behind in reading and math. Also, national declines in the teen pregnancy, birth, and death rates suggest a brightening future for U.S. youth.

But the news from the report, which is published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and is now in its 25th year, is not all good. It also found a concerning rise in the number of children growing up in poor communities, and an increasing percentage of kids who are growing up in single-parent households.

“We should all be encouraged by the improvements in many well-being indicators in the health, education and safety areas,” said Patrick McCarthy, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s president and CEO said in a news release. “But we must do much more. All of us, in every sector — business, government, nonprofits, faith-based groups, families — need to continue to work together to ensure that all children have the chance to succeed.”

The foundation published the list of state-by-state rankings, which listed Massachusetts as the top-ranked state in education and overall, and Mississippi as the lowest-ranking state overall as well as in the economic well-being and family and community categories.  Vermont, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Minnesota rounded out the top 5 states, and New Mexico, Nevada, Louisiana, and Arizona joined Mississippi in the bottom 5.

Image: Chalkboard, via Shutterstock

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