Tuesday, August 27th, 2013
Intriguing new research suggests that your baby is listening closely to what you say—even before she’s born. Finnish scientists found that babies in utero not only hear sounds around them, but also can detect subtle differences in words, and recognize those differences after birth.
More on the study from NBC News:
Researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland looked at 33 moms-to-be, and examined their babies after birth. While pregnant, 17 mothers listened at a loud volume to a CD with two, four minute sequences of made-up words (“tatata” or “tatota”, said several different ways and with different pitches) from week 29 until birth.
The moms and babies heard the nonsense words about 50 to 71 times. Following birth, the researchers tested the all 33 babies for normal hearing and then performed an EEG (electroencephalograph) brain scan to see if the newborns responded differently to the made-up words and different pitches.
Babies who listened to the CD in utero recognized the made-up words and noticed the pitch changes, which the infants who did not hear the CD did not, the researchers found. They could tell because their brain activity picked up when those words were played, while babies who didn’t hear the CD in the womb did not react as much.
“We have known that fetuses can learn certain sounds from their environment during pregnancy,” Eino Partanen, a doctoral student and lead author on the paper, said via email.
“We can now very easily assess the effects of fetal learning on a very detailed level—like in our study, [we] look at the learning effects to very small changes in the middle of a word.”
This paper does more than simply find that babies in utero can hear; it shows that babies can detect subtle changes and process complex information.
Image: Mother and ultrasound picture, via Shutterstock
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Wednesday, August 14th, 2013
The longer a mother breastfeeds, the more impact she has on her baby’s brain development, according to new research published in JAMA Pediatrics. The New York Times has more on the study, which was conducted by researchers from Harvard Medical School:
For each additional month a baby was breast-fed, verbal ability was higher at age 3, and verbal and nonverbal I.Q. scores were higher at age 7, the study concluded. The researchers accounted for factors like the mothers’ intelligence and employment, home environment and child care.
“One of the theories as to why breast-fed children tend to have better cognitive development is there are nutrients in breast milk that benefit the baby’s developing brain,” said Dr. Mandy Brown Belfort, a neonatologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and lead author of the study.
“Our results support policies that allow women to continue breast-feeding through a year of their child’s life to optimize brain development,” Dr. Belfort said.
Image: Breastfeeding mother, via Shutterstock
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Friday, July 12th, 2013
Testing a pregnant woman’s blood for six distinct antibodies may be able to predict with more than 99 percent certainty whether her baby has a significant risk of developing an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). New research, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, found that 23 percent of all autism cases can be traced to the set of antibodies, which interfere with brain development while the baby is in utero. More from Time.com:
The research is already leading to what could be the first biological test for autism; the antibodies are found almost exclusively in mothers of autistic children, and not in children with other types of disorders or in mothers of non-autistic children. Only 1% of mothers whose children were not affected by autism had the antibodies in their blood, compared to 23% of mothers of autistic children. Judith Van de Water, an immunologist and professor of internal medicine at the University of California Davis MIND Institute and the study’s lead author, has consulted for a company, Pediatric Bioscience, that is developing a commercial version of the test, but the research was not funded by that organization and was supported primarily by the National Institute on Environmental Health Sciences.
“We haven’t found any [mothers] who have these antibodies and don’t have children with some sort of developmental disability issue,” says Van de Water. “We feel this really identifies a subtype of autism.”
The antibodies belong to a class of compounds called autoantibodies, which are immune cells that the body makes to target — often mistakenly — its own cells. Scientists do not know why or when the mothers produce these antibodies, which appear to monkey with normal nerve development in the fetal brain by interfering with their growth, migration and genetic replication. It is possible that infections during pregnancy — a known risk factor for autism —can prompt the immune system to produce them. Exposure to toxic chemicals can also cause immune defenders to mistake healthy cells for invaders, Van de Water notes.
The study involved 246 autistic children and their mothers, as well as 149 typically developing children. Of the mothers tested, all but one with the antibodies had an autistic child— and the child of the remaining mother had ADHD, a condition that often occurs along with autism. That suggests that a positive test almost certainly indicates a developmental disability. However, since 77% of the mothers of autistic children did not have these antibodies, Van de Water says, a negative test would not rule out all risk of autism.
And so far, the presence of the antibodies do not seem to be associated with any particular form of autism. “Certain behaviors seem to be associated with this, including stereotyped repetitive behavior like hand-flapping and lower levels of expressive language,” says Van de Water, but no unique behavioral signature has been found so far. The children also did not seem to score differently on cognitive tests than other youngsters with autism.
Image: Pregnant woman having blood drawn, via Shutterstock
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Friday, June 28th, 2013
Highly interconnected networks of nerves in the brain may be a marker of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that will allow researchers to identify the condition in very young children. A new study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry has made this finding, building on research from a year ago that found a non-invasive EEG test could identify unique brain patterns in the brains of autistic 2-year-olds. The new finding is promising for the ability of doctors to identify ASD at its earliest stages, which would allow interventions and treatments to begin as early as possible. More from Time.com:
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A highly interconnected brain could mean that signals zooming from sensory nerves to other networks become too overwhelming to parse apart and process, which researchers believe is a hallmark of the autistic brain. And in a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, Stanford University researchers report that this pattern of hyperconnectivity in some brain areas could provide a fingerprint for autism that helps doctors to recognize the condition at its earliest stages.
The scientists scanned the brains of 20 autistic children who ranged in age from 7 to 12 and also imaged 20 typically developing children of the same age for comparison. They found stronger connections within many critical brain networks in the autistic children, including those responsible for introspection, vision and movement.
They also saw more robust links in networks that help the brain to triage the flood of incoming information from both our bodies and our environment that assaults us constantly. Called the salience network, it’s responsible for determining which internal or external sensations need our immediate attention. Using a computer program that the researchers developed to make sense of the brain imaging data, they found that by mapping the salience network alone, they could accurately classify autistic or non-autistic children in their study 78% of the time — and could do so 83% of the time using data from other researchers.
“That’s wonderful,” says Kamila Markram, the Autism Project Director at the Brain Mind Institute of the EPFL, a federal technology institute in Lausanne, Switzerland, who was not associated with the research, “We must move toward biological markers for autism and not just rely on interviews and observations by people.” Markram previously published animal research suggesting that hyperconnectivity may be involved in autism.
Moreover, the more strongly connected the salience network was in autistic children, the worse symptoms they had in terms of repetitive behaviors like rocking and restricted interests such as being obsessed with computers or the periodic table of elements. The findings suggest that from an early age, children with autism develop differently from those without the condition, and that these changes may be detectable through brain imaging.
Thursday, June 27th, 2013
The health benefits of breastfeeding are numerous and oft-discussed, and a new study is linking those benefits, specifically the cognitive development thought to be accelerated in breast-fed babies, with a higher social status later in life. Time.com has more:
What does breast-feeding have to do with social status? According to the researchers from University College London, who reported their findings in the journal BMJ, breast-feeding can impact cognitive development, and that accounted for just over a third of nursing’s effect on improvements in social status. What’s more, the practice also seemed to lower the chances of downward mobility.
To assess the impact of breast-feeding on later social status, the researchers compared two cohorts of people, including more than 17,400 individuals born in 1958, and over 16,700 people born in 1970. When their kids were about 5 years old, mothers in both groups were asked if they had breast-fed their children. The researchers used the children’s fathers’ income and job to determine the youngsters’ initial social status when they were about 10 to 11 years old and compared this with their social status decades later, when they reached age 33 or 34. And to get some idea of the way in which breast-feeding might be influencing social status, the scientists also evaluated the children’s cognitive skills and stress responses when they were about 10 or 11.
Breast-feeding rates were lower among the participants born in 1970, but the breakdown of high social achievers in the two populations remained the same. For both groups, breast-feeding increased the odds of upward mobility — defined by the researchers on a 4-point scale ranging from unskilled/semiskilled manual to professional/managerial — by 24% and lowered the likelihood for downward social mobility by 20%. The effect was greatest for children who were breast-fed for more than four weeks, and the social-status gap was largest between those who were breast-fed for four weeks or more and those who received only formula. The breast-feeding effect held even after the researchers accounted for the obvious factors, such as broad socioeconomic influences including employment rates and national economic stability, as well as individual characteristics like parental education.
According to the authors, the benefits shown by the babies in cognitive and intellectual development could have helped them to climb up the social ladder, since they might have adapted more readily to new situations and accepted challenges; the brain testing also suggested that the breast-fed children were less likely to experience emotional stress and better able to cope with anxiety if they did.
But they acknowledge that their study could not tease apart whether this advantage resulted from the breast milk and its known nutrients and immune-system components, or from the intimate contact between mother and child that breast-feeding requires.
Image: Breastfeeding baby, via Shutterstock
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