Tag Archives: baby

Scientists find potential downside to cesarian

Cesarean babies have lower levels of ‘good’ gut bacteria, a new study shows. This may make them more prone to respiratory infections, but the overall health effects are unclear.

Over the past few years, gut bacteria have been increasingly shown to play an important role in our overall health. The bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract can help regulate the immune system, and recent studies have shown that altering these microbial communities can cause autoimmune disorders and many other problems.

With this in mind, a team of researchers set out to see whether natural birth and C-section would have an impact on babies’ microbiome. They analyzed over 100 babies (46 babies born by cesarean section and 74 babies born vaginally), finding that those who were born vaginally had a significantly different gut microbiome make-up. Although the differences were found to diminish over time, they were significant enough to potentially make cesarean babies more prone to infections. Furthermore, babies born through C-sections were also slower to acquire “good bacteria” that can help them to digest milk.

Researchers aren’t sure why these differences appeared, but there was a suspicion that it could be because many mothers who’ve had cesarean sections required antibiotics. But the antibiotics were only given to the mother after the baby had been delivered — meaning the baby wasn’t directly exposed to antibiotics.

“We feel that it is proved that mode of delivery is an important driver or modifier of the gut microbiome in young infants,” Prof Debby Bogaert from the University of Edinburgh, who worked on the project with colleagues in the Netherlands, told The Guardian.

The researchers also found that antibiotics given to mothers after birth did not appear to affect the mothers’ microbiome. Furthermore, the differences in babies’ microbiomes were also seen in babies that were only bottle-fed — suggesting that there are more factors at play than just the type of birth.

It’s hard to draw a cause-effect relationship. The study only found a correlation and it’s still a relatively small sample size. However, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: we need to pay more attention to the gut microbiome of both babies and adults. Key bacterial components could be administered artificially to C-section babies, for instance, or their health could be monitored more closely for types of infections linked with gut microbiome unbalances.

Hopefully, more studies can clarify exactly what effect the method of delivery has on babies’ microbiome, and how this difference translates into health outcomes.

“The concept of foetal microbiome is very controversial,” concludes Katja Korpela, one of the researchers involved in the study from the University of Oulu, Finland.

The research was presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Tyrannosaurus rex started life as large as a Border Collie, a new paper reports

A new discovery shows that the king of the dinosaurs started life no larger than your average dog.

Artist’s impression of a juvenile tyrannosaur. Image credits Julius Csotonyi.

Tyrannosaurus rex (‘rex’ is Latin for ‘king’) is perhaps one of the best-known dinosaurs of all time. Movies such as Jurassic Park, and the dinosaur’s own impressive proportions (up to 40 feet / 12 meters in length as an adult) and body shape have cemented its image as a deadly, unstoppable predator in our minds.

While it definitely was very deadly, T. rex was likely very happy to act as a scavenger, not a hunter, when given the opportunity. And, while definitely much too large to pet in its adult years, this probably wasn’t true for its earliest days, as a new discovery shows.

Smallest big dinosaur

“These bones are the first window into the early lives of tyrannosaurs and they teach us about the size and appearance of baby tyrannosaurs,” explained University of Edinburgh paleontologist Greg Funston, lead author of the study.

“We now know they would have been the largest hatchlings to ever emerge from eggs, and they would have looked remarkably like their parents — both good signs for finding more material in the future. This may seem enormous, but remember that they would have been curled up inside an egg”.

The authors explain that the discovery of “the first-known fossils of tyrannosaur embryos” sheds light on how this immense dinosaur started his life. They aren’t T. rex exactly, but the embryos belonged to two closely-related species (Daspletosaurus and Albertosaurus sarcophagus), so they can give us some reliable information about the family as a whole. The fossils were unearthed in the U.S., Montana, and Canada, Alberta.

The team created 3D scans of the fossil fragments, allowing for a detailed analysis of their morphology. Armed with these scans, they determined (based on the size) that the bones belonged to juvenile, not-yet-hatched tyrannosaurs. Such fossils suggest that T. rex eggs (fossils of which we’ve not yet found) were around 17 inches (43 centimeters) long, and juveniles grew to around three feet long before hatching.

At this time, the dinosaur’s jaws would measure three centimeters in length (around 1.2 inches) but already had distinctive features such as a pronounced chin. This indicates that the main elements of a tyrannosaurs’ anatomy were already formed before hatching

Still, the paper also raises some questions. Why haven’t we found any T. rex eggs yet? The authors raise the possibility that the species laid soft-shelled eggs, which would be very unlikely to fossilize.

On the one hand, the findings can help make it easier to identify any tyrannosaur eggs we might discover in the future. On the other, it gives us a chance to look at adorable pictures of mini-dinosaurs, and that’s priceless.

The paper “Baby tyrannosaurid bones and teeth from the Late Cretaceous of western North America” has been published in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences.

Breastfeeding might help develop babies’ brain, new study suggests

A new study reports that breastfeeding might give a boost to baby intelligence. Researchers have found several proteins within breastmilk connected to neurodevelopment, offering new support to the idea that breastfeeding can help babies’ brain development.

The debate around breastfeeding is long and will likely not end anytime soon. Scientific evidence has found that breast milk can protect against infections, and has been associated with a reduced risk of childhood obesity, leukemia, and even cardiovascular health in adulthood. But identifying what effects come directly from the milk is tricky, as other factors can also play an important role.

Regarding breastfeeding’s role in intelligence, results have been mixed and rather inconsistent. There is a myriad factors which can affect intelligence, and drawing a clear cause-effect relationship has proven extremely difficult. However, a new study comes with some convincing new evidence.

“Our previous research established that vulnerable preterm infants who are fed breast milk early in life have improved brain growth and neurodevelopmental outcomes. It was unclear what makes breastfeeding so beneficial for newborns’ developing brains,” says Catherine Limperopoulos, Ph.D., director of MRI Research of the Developing Brain at Children’s National.

Limperopoulos and colleagues at the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, used a sophisticated, non-invasive imaging technique called ‘proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy’ to peer inside newborns’ brains, carrying out a comparison between breastfed babies and babies fed with formula milk. They looked for specific biochemicals in the frontal white matter and the cerebellum — two brain regions that are especially vulnerable in premature babies, which the study focused on.

Specifically, there were increased amounts of inositol (a molecule similar to glucose) and creatine (a molecule which helps to recycle energy inside cells).

“These biochemicals are markers of brain development,” said Limperopoulos. “For example, higher levels of choline in the brain are associated with improved memory and cognition. We can’t make that direct link here – we don’t have information about memory and cognition in newborns – but our hope is that this is an early marker for improved later intelligence. We’d need to confirm that with our follow-up studies.”

The proteins are useful for all babies, and especially for at-risk babies, such as those born prematurely.

“We’re excited by these results because they’re helping us to understand not only how premature birth can have adverse effects on the developing brain, but also how our caregiving can help to protect the brains of these high-risk infants,” she continues.

However, it should also be noted that if the mother can’t breastfeed for any health reason, there is no need for guilt. Mothers are under huge pressure as it is, and adding more pressure regarding breastfeeding isn’t going to do anyone any favors.

The study “Improved cerebral and cerebellar metabolism in breast milk-fed VLBW infants” has been presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation.

Newborn in Japan receives first treatment with liver STEM cells

A team of doctors in Japan have successfully transplanted stem liver cells into a newborn baby who required transplant, marking a world first.

Stock image via Pxfuel.

This approach could be used in the future for other infants who require organ transplants but are still too young or frail to bear such an intervention, the team explains. The patient suffered from urea cycle disorder, a condition where the liver is not able to break down ammonia, a toxic compound, in the blood, but was considered too small to survive a surgical intervention.

Infant cells to treat infants

“The success of this trial demonstrates safety in the world’s first clinical trial using human ES (embryonic stem) cells for patients with liver disease,” said a press release of Japan’s National Center for Child Health and Development (NCCHD) following the procedure according to todayonline.

At only six days old, the infant (whose sex has hot been disclosed) was too small to undergo a liver transplant, which is not considered safe for patients under 6 kilograms (13 pounds), according to the NCCHD, which usually means they have to be around three to five months old.

However, the baby’s condition would have been fatal until then, so the doctors had to find an alternative way of treatment.

They settled on a “bridge treatment” meant to manage the condition until the baby was big enough for transplant. This procedure involved injecting 190 million liver cells derived from embryonic stem cells into the blood vessels of the liver. And it worked.

They report that the baby “did not see an increase in blood ammonia concentrations” after the procedure and grew up to “successfully complete the next treatment”, namely a liver transplant from its father. The patient was discharged from the hospital six months after birth.

This course of treatment can be used for infant (and perhaps adult) patients who are also waiting for a transplant in other parts of the world. Doctors at the NCCHD note that Europe and the US have a relatively stable supply of liver cells from brain-dead donors, while Japan only has a limited quantity to work with. So they had to use ES cells, which are harvested from fertilized eggs, which has caused some controversy regarding how ethical their use is.

The NCCHD is one of only two organisations in Japan allowed to work with ES cells to develop new medical treatments. It works with fertilised eggs whose use has been approved by both donors having already completed fertility treatment, according to the institute.

The treatment so far isn’t meant to replace transplants, but that’s definitely an exciting possibility for the future. Transplants save lives, but they rely on donors (whose numbers are limited) and require highly specialized equipment, doctors, and medicine to be successful. We can, however, hope that in the future a simple injection may replace the transplants of today.

Having a baby in the US may cost some families $4,500 out-of-pocket

Having a baby can be a huge financial burden for most families — and it all starts with childbirth itself. According to a new study, the average out-of-pocket health care spending for maternity care in the US was $4,569 in 2015, up from $3,069 in 2008.

Credit: Pixabay.

As part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), employer-based health plans cover the brunt of costs associated with maternity care, including preventive services such as pap smears and mammograms. However, the vast majority of families still have to pay many critical services associated with having a baby.

Approximately 98% of American women reported paying at least some out-of-pocket costs when they delivered their babies, according to a new study led by Michelle Moniz, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Michigan Medicine’s Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital.

“I see patients for prenatal care and labor and delivery care, and I sometimes see patients struggling to get recommended care because of the cost. We wanted to examine this nationally,” Moniz told ZME Science.

According to Moniz:

  1. Between 2008-2015, 98.2% of women had some out-of-pocket costs for maternity care. 
  2. Average out-of-pocket spending for maternity care rose, from $3069 in 2008 to $4569 in 2015. 
  3. Rising spending was largely driven by increased costs among those with deductibles. 

The study involved 657,061 women enrolled in 84,178 employer-sponsored plans who had been hospitalized for childbirth from 2008 to 2015.

“I was surprised at the magnitude of average costs — $4,500 is not a small co-pay. This is a significant financial burden, and I don’t care for many families that have that kind of money readily available for a healthcare expense,” Moniz wrote in an e-mail.

Out-of-pocket costs for cesarean sections were higher than vaginal births ($5,161 versus $4,313 in 2015, up from $3,364 versus $2,910 in 2008).

Families also bore a higher proportion of total costs than ever before. In 2015, the standardized cost for vaginal birth was approximately $23,000 and for a cesarean birth around $44,000. However, the share that families had to cover out of their pocket increased from 13% in 2008 to 21% in 2015 for vaginal births and from 10% in 2008 to 15% in 2015 for C-sections.

The researchers want to draw attention to these concerning price hikes, which may restrict maternity care for some families in a tight financial situation.

“Financial burdens place women at risk for delaying/deferring maternity care, which increases the risk of poor birth outcomes,” Moniz said.

Policymakers could make improvements in deductible plans and co-pays, as well as dispelling possible misconceptions about what the ACA requires for maternity health care coverage. Previously, we posted a video of various interviews with Brits who were told how much various healthcare services cost in the US (there are typically no out-of-pocket costs for maternity care in the UK) — their reactions is priceless.

“State and federal policies to restrict out-of-pocket spending on maternity care may augment ongoing national efforts to improve maternal-child health outcomes,” Moniz said.

“Maternity and childbirth care are essential health services that promote the well-being of families across our country. Reducing patients’ costs for these high-value services makes sense. We all want babies to have the best possible start in life,” she added.

The findings appeared in the journal Health Affairs.

Ancient baby feeder.

Tiny, ancient, animal-shaped pots were likely the first baby bottles

A team led by researchers from the University of Bristol reports on the earliest evidence of babies being fed animal milk — and of the ancient equivalent of modern-day baby bottles.

Late Bronze Age feeding vessels from Vösendorf, Austria.
Image credits Enver-Hirsch / Wien Museum.

Chemical analyses, as well as the context these vessels were discovered in, strongly suggest that they were used as baby feeders. The vessels were made from clay and first appeared in Europe around the Neolithic (late stone age, around 5,000 BC). Throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, these vessels become increasingly more commonplace, the team explains.

Baby munchies

“These very small, evocative, vessels give us valuable information on how and what babies were fed thousands of years ago, providing a real connection to mothers and infants in the past,” says lead author Dr. Julie Dunne from the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry.

The vessels are quite small — usually small enough that a baby could comfortably grip and hold them. They also have a spout through which liquid can be suckled and, in some of the more eye-catching variants, are shaped like animals or resembling animals. Although this does suggest that they were used as an equivalent of today’s baby bottles, we don’t have any direct evidence of their function. For example, they could very well have been made for the sick or infirm to use.

In order to find out what kind of foods these vessels were used to serve, the team analyzed three examples found in child graves in Bavaria. These vessels were small (about 5-10 cm across) with an extremely narrow spout. Food residues within the vessels showed that they contained ruminant milk (from domesticated cattle, sheep, or goats).

Ancient baby feeder.
Selection of Late Bronze Age feeding vessels from Vienna, Oberleis, Vösendorf, and Franzhausen-Kokoron (from left to right), dated to around 1200– 800 BC.
Image credits Katharina Rebay-Salisbury.

The presence of these specialized vessels in child graves, along with the presence of milk residue inside them, strongly suggests that these were used to feed animal milk to babies — in the place of human milk and/or during weaning onto supplementary foods.

The study represents our closest proven link between these vessels and child feeding. They’re also the most direct evidence of weaning practices we have to date — previously, these were inferred from isotopic analysis of infant skeletons, but that only gave us some bits of the puzzle. As such, the study fleshes out our understanding of breastfeeding and weaning practices, as well as infant and maternal health practices in prehistory.

She continued: “Similar vessels, although rare, do appear in other prehistoric cultures (such as Rome and ancient Greece) across the world,” Dunne explains. “Ideally, we’d like to carry out a larger geographic study and investigate whether they served the same purpose.”

The paper “Milk of ruminants in ceramic baby bottles from prehistoric child graves” has been published in the journal Nature.

Credit: Pixabay.

What is the ‘right’ age to have a child? Here’s what the science says

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Over the past three decades, there has been a steady increase in the average age of parents. Advances in fertility science mean that people can, literally, put their eggs or sperm on ice and delay the start of parenthood. Many large companies, such as Apple, Facebook and Google, now offer egg freezing to employees as part of their healthcare package. Putting off having a baby has never been easier or more socially acceptable. But is it a good thing?

There are three things to consider. Will your child be healthy? Will you get pregnant? How much will it cost?

Parents have a moral obligation to give their child the best start in life. But children born to mothers over the age of 35 and fathers over the age of 45 are at greater risk of having genetic and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as schizophrenia and autism, which arguably affects the child’s quality of life.

Also, older parents are more likely to need assisted reproduction, such as IVF, which is associated with babies being born early or with low birth weight. Babies born via IVF are also at higher risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disease in later life.

If prospective parents freeze their eggs or sperm when they are younger, they can reduce some age-associated risks but not those due to IVF. The method of fertilisation in IVF with frozen eggs is intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), where sperm is injected into the egg. ICSI can also increase the risk of birth defects in children. Using ICSI is also more common in older men where sperm motility is poor. Again, not the best start in life.

So you’ve decided to wait

If you want to wait to have children, you are not alone.

Most couples will fall pregnant after trying for a year. Although one in seven couples has trouble conceiving – and age is a big player in this. One in six women aged between 35 and 39 years of age will not conceive after one year. If their partner is over 40, this drops to more than one in four.

IVF is seen by many as a fail-safe way of conceiving, but its success is also governed by age. For a woman using her own eggs, the success of IVF over 40 is less than 10%.

The risks of delaying parenthood have been simulated with computer modelling. If a 30-year-old woman delays trying for a baby from age 30 until 35, her chances of falling pregnant are reduced by 9%, but IVF will only compensate for 4%.

And if you want to freeze eggs, great. Except women produce fewer eggs (“oocytes”) as they get older, so older women may need more rounds of stimulation to store the eight to ten eggs needed for a reasonable chance of a successful birth – and this can be extremely expensive.

What will it cost you?

Although IVF is expensive, there are also other significant indirect costs of having a child.

The “motherhood wage penalty” is often cited in economic discussions about the effect of motherhood on women’s careers. It is the loss of earnings women are subjected to as they move into a non-paid job for a period of time. There is some evidence to suggest that women can earn more by delaying motherhood from their early twenties to early thirties.

But this wage penalty does not appear to be gender specific. A paternity quota of parental leave was introduced by the Norwegian government in 1993, and a study found a similar negative effect on the earnings of stay-at-home fathers.

The bottom line is, if you take time out to have a family there will be a drop in earnings.

When to start?

The scientific data is clear. The “right” age to have a child according to your biological clock is under 35 for women and under 40 for men.

More than 75% of young people underestimate the impact of age on male and female fertility – yet only 27% of doctors discuss this with patients aged 18-34 years who wish to delay childbearing for social reasons. There needs to be a greater awareness about the risks of delaying family planning, and family doctors should play a more proactive role in this.

So, ultimately, if you want to have a child, the right age may be sooner than you thought.

Charlotte Walker, DPhil Candidate in Women’s and Reproductive Health, University of Oxford and Suzannah Williams, Principal Investigator, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Kid on the beach.

All two-year-olds seem to sound pretty much the same to adults

Adults are very bad at distinguishing between the voices of two-and-a-half-year-olds, new research finds.

Kid on the beach.

“I just feel like I haven’t found my own voice, ya know?”
Image via Pixabay.

Caring for young children is often a stressful experience. But it doesn’t seem like our brains want to help lighten our burden either, a team from the University of Toronto (UoT) found. According to them, adults have a much harder time distinguishing between the voices of young children (two-and-a-half-year-olds) than between the voices of other adults.

Who said that?

“What we found with two-and-a-half-year-olds is that it’s amazingly hard for adults to identify who’s talking,” said Angela Cooper, a postdoctoral researcher at the UoT, and co-author of the research.

Cooper worked with professor Elizabeth K. Johnson and postdoctoral researcher Natalie Fecher (both at the UoT) for the study. The first step was to create an interactive game — it involved an alien — that required the player to say out loud 32 common words like tree, dog, ball, or elephant. Fifty native English-speaking two-and-a-half-year-old children from the Toronto area were presented with the game, which allowed the researchers to capture recordings of their speech. The children’s mothers were also asked to record the same words.

Later, undergraduates at the UoT (aged 18-25) were asked to listen to 80 pairs of words spoken by 20 of the children. The undergrads had to indicate whether the words were spoken by the same (or a different) child. They also performed this task for 20 of the adult voices.

Turns out that we’re not too good at telling the voices of preschoolers apart. Participants were only able to correctly distinguish between two different children 40% of the time. In contrast, they correctly identified different adult voices 65% of the time.

“I find it particularly interesting that the participants’ ability to identify adult voices was not related to their ability to identify children’s voices,” Cooper said. “You’re maybe using different information or you’re processing things slightly differently when you’re listening to an adult voice versus when you’re listening to a child’s voice.”

In the second stage of the study, the team put the undergrads through a training session. Participants were asked to listen to a recording that included four child voices and four adult voices. It was successful to some extent — while the students did get better at identifying different voices, the effect was more pronounced for adult voices.

“Part of this training process is retuning what speech cues we need to pay attention to,” Cooper said. “Often children have particular mispronunciations.”

“Some kids will say ‘poon’ instead of spoon, or elephant becomes ‘ephant’. We might be actually cuing in to which child makes different kinds of errors.”

The team is now preparing a series of follow-up studies where they will use pupillometry (a measure of pupil dilation) to quantify how much mental effort goes into differentiating between the voices of two-and-a-half-year-old children. In the meantime, the team hopes all the confused, exhausted parents the world over manage to hang in there.

“What I’d like to say to parents is that with exposure it does get easier over time,” Cooper said.

The findings will be presented as a poster at the Acoustical Society of America’s 176th Meeting, held in conjunction with the Canadian Acoustical Association’s 2018 Acoustics Week at the Victoria Conference Centre in Victoria, Canada, from the 5th to the 9th of November.

Smoke Plume.

Air pollution soots its way into mothers’ placentas — maybe the fetus, as well

Tiny particles of carbon associated with air pollution can find their way into the placenta of pregnant women, a new paper reports. The findings cast light on the danger air pollution poses on developing fetuses.

Smoke Plume.

Image via Pixabay.

Even unborn babies suffer from the poor quality of our air, new research shows. Previous research has linked complications such as premature birth, low birth weight, infant mortality, and childhood respiratory problems to a pregnant woman’s exposure to air pollution. The present paper adds to that body of evidence, explaining that when pregnant women breathe polluted air, particles of soot are able to travel through the bloodstream to the placenta.

The smell of soot in the morning

The findings were presented by Dr. Norrice Liu, a pediatrician and clinical research fellow, and Dr. Lisa Miyashita, a post-doctoral researcher Sunday at the European Respiratory Society International Congress in Paris.

“We’ve known for a while that air pollution affects foetal development and can continue to affect babies after birth and throughout their lives,” Dr. Miyashita explained.

“We were interested to see if these effects could be due to pollution particles moving from the mother’s lungs to the placenta. Until now, there has been very little evidence that inhaled particles get into the blood from the lung.”

The team worked with five pregnant women, all of whom were living in London. The five were all non-smokers, pregnant with uncomplicated pregnancies, and were due to have planned cesarean section deliveries at the Royal London Hospital.

After they gave birth, the team retrieved their placentas for study. The researchers were particularly interested in cells known as placental macrophages. Some of their previous research involved identifying and measuring soot particles in the human airway by investigating these cells.

Macrophages of all walks of life permeate the body. They’re an integral part of the immune system and work by gobbling up foreign, harmful particles such as bacteria or soot, and then attacking them chemically — i.e. ‘digesting’ them. In the placenta, they’re tasked with keeping the fetus secure.

The team looked at roughly 3,500 placental macrophage cells retrieved from the five participants. Using a high-powered microscope, they investigated the cells for signs of soot. Some 60 cells contained these particles, the paper reports, totaling roughly 72 black areas. On average, each placenta contained around five square micrometers of this black substance.

Subsequent experiments with an electron microscope showed this black substance was made up of tiny carbon particles — soot.

“We thought that looking at macrophages in other organs might provide direct evidence that inhaled particles move out of the lungs to other parts of the body,” Dr Liu explains. “We were not sure if we were going to find any particles and if we did find them, we were only expecting to find a small number of placental macrophages that contain these sooty particles.”

“This is because most of them should be engulfed by macrophages within the airways, particularly the bigger particles, and only a minority of small sized particles would move into the circulation.

The results form the first solid evidence of soot particles passing from the lungs into the circulatory system and, from there, to the placenta. As of now, the team cannot say for sure whether the particles can also make their way into the fetus, but note that “this is indeed possible” given the current findings.

“We also know that the particles do not need to get into the baby’s body to have an adverse effect, because if they have an effect on the placenta, this will have a direct impact on the foetus,” Dr Liu cautions, however.

The results support previous findings that women living in polluted cities are more prone to pregnancy issues. Furthermore, they suggest that such issues — especially low birth weight — can still happen at pollution levels that are lower than the EU’s recommended annual limit.

The study “Do inhaled carbonaceous particles translocate from the lung to the placenta?” has been presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress in Paris on September 16th. The work is a non-peer reviewed observational study.


What makes things cute?

What exactly is it that makes us go “d’awww” — and why?


Image credits Harald Lepisk.

A few days ago, as I was writing this post (it’s about puppies, you’ll love it), a few questions began to quicken somewhere in my brain. Why do we find certain things cute? Why can my brain perceive such a wide array of things and beings as ‘cute’? And why does it give me that warm, mushy feeling inside? Let’s find out, starting with:

The Why

Our best guess around the issue so far is that cuteness has a biological and evolutionary basis. That we find some things to be ‘cute’ because that ability gave us an evolutionary advantage. This theory was put forward around 1950 by Austrian zoologist, and one of the founders of ethology, Konrad Lorenz.

Lorenz’s view was that certain traits of an infant’s face trigger a nurturing instinct in adults — we perceive this as a feeling of ‘cuteness’. It nudged parents into being more involved in caring and providing for their children, making it more likely that they would grow healthily and reach adulthood. So, over time, those who could perceive the cuteness of their babies gained an evolutionary advantage over those who couldn’t. Team Cute was simply better at keeping their babies alive — so, in time, the genes that encoded this instinct and associated behavior gained the upper hand over other variants.

In other words, there are no cute things, only things you perceive as being cute so you’ll feed them.

This is what our current understanding of cuteness boils down to. Our brains have evolved to take certain elements associated with our younglings as cues for a nurturing instinct. We feel the push of that instinct in our desire to take a baby and pinch its cheeks. It makes us want to keep it warm and well fed. Finally, it keeps us from throwing the baby/ourselves to the bears after two straight weeks of being woken up in the middle of the night (this is very useful).

It also seems that the evolutionary advantage we talked about earlier did a lot to tilt the playing field. Humanity today seems to have a pretty homogenous view of what constitutes ‘cute’, suggesting that the cute-instinct imposed itself throughout all human populations. Even infants themselves seem to be more drawn to other cute infant faces compared to un-cute ones, a sign that recognition of cute is so important to the human race it got hard-wired into our brains.

Why, then, are so many other things cute?


Image via life.cookingpanda.com

Does this sea slug look cute to you? Let’s be honest — of course it does. But is that sea slug your kid?

I salute any sea slug who reads ZME Science, but I’ll wager that most of you answered with a resounding ‘no!’ to that last one. Which, given what we’ve seen so far, doesn’t really fit in. If babies are cute so parents miss how stressful they can be, why does that slug make me squeal in delight?

Well, it all cycles back to those cues our brains use for gauging cuteness. They’re actually pretty general elements, like different body shapes and ratios. This means that your brain will register many things as ‘cute’. One of the best people you can go to to learn about cuteness — and insight on how to abuse it — are designers, cartoonists, and other types of visual artists.

“Childlike characteristics make a baby sweet and bring us to build rapport. We find it dinky. That even works when we see things reminding us of a baby or just parts of it,” wrote Sascha Preuss in an Envato Tuts+ design course focusing on designing cute characters.

“That means these characteristics can be consciously transfused and applied, for example in the field of designing things and of course especially when it comes to character design.”

Some of the things the course points to as conducive to cuteness are:

  • A high head-to-body size ratio. For a baby, that’s roughly 1:4, while for adults it’s 1:8. “Cute characters need big and round heads,” it adds, and exaggerated features can help increase this effect.
  • The eyes and ears are placed lower in the skull, creating a large forehead. They’re spaced more widely apart than in an adult and are relatively big in proportion to the rest of the face. We tend to find things with eyes showing forward as cuter.
  • A soft, small, not-fully-developed nose.
  • Smaller mouths are cuter, as we subconsciously register bigger ones as being threatening or dangerous. It should also be closer to the eyes than in an adult face. “Some cute Japanese characters don’t have a mouth at all,” Preuss adds.
  • A generally-round and soft body. Limbs shouldn’t be too long, and the legs especially should be “short and plump”. Fingers, likewise, should be short and stout. Wobbling also helps. All of this feeds into a look of relaxed helplessness that just makes us want to pinch a (round) cheek.

There are more factors playing into how cute we perceive something to be, but these are the few central ones. We’ve evolved to respond to such cues because that’s how our babies look — but that sea slug shares a lot of these characteristics. So why aren’t our brains more disciplined? We don’t really know.

On a personal note, I’ve come to see that evolution very often makes ‘economic’ sense, for lack of a better word. This may explain why we have such a wide range of cute. Statistical hypothesis testing considers two types of errors: type I’s, and type II’s. A type I error is seeing something that’s not there. Type II is failing to see something that actually is there.

When your baby is involved, a type II error is, potentially, far more costly than a type I. It’s really, really bad for you and your genes if you fail to notice that your baby is cute and aren’t incentivized to care for it. Comparatively, finding a puppy cute isn’t very costly — at worst, you’ll have to contend with its mom, but you already passed on your genes, so it’s fine even if you get mauled.

In other words, people who would register many things as cute had a better chance of passing on their genes than people who would register too few, or none. So, finding things cute — even finding too many things cute — became a selective advantage.

What does it do to me?

MRI orbitofrontal cortex.

The orbitofrontal cortex, involved in processing pleasure and emotion.
Image credits Paul Wicks.

Cuteness seems to elicit a very powerful effect on the brain. We’ve talked about the physical cues that construct it, however, cuteness is not limited to visual stimuli. One study found that the other senses, such as “positive sounds and smells”, also help reinforce feelings of cuteness. Furthermore, something cute draws our attention like a magnet, ignites a flurry of activity in our brain, and alters our behavior — making us more compassionate.

A strong effect, right? Well, it makes sense — our infants, unlike those of other species, are completely dependent on adults. One of the jobs cuteness performs, then, is to make sure that the baby is put on the top of our brain’s priority list 24/7. This strong reaction is there by design, to make infants difficult to ignore.

Cuteness activates brain networks involved in processing emotion and pleasure and makes us more empathetic. That’s why looking at cute pictures of cats online makes us feel so good. It’s almost ridiculously effective at altering behavior: research has shown that people prefer to look at cute baby faces over attractive adult faces; we’re more likely to adopt or gift toys to cute babies; we’re willing to expend effort just to look at cute babies. All of this, regardless of gender, even if we’re not parents ourselves.

It also triggers more long-lasting effects in the brain. The first thing our pound of gray matter does upon seeing something cute is to activate the orbitofrontal cortex — involved in emotion and pleasure processing. This activation, however, also prompts secondary processes throughout other brain networks. This pattern of activity has been associated with caregiving, bonding, and nurturing behavior.

Seeing something cute, in other words, starts priming your brain for parenthood.

The UK royal “luxury” birth cost less than the average US birth

As a new royal baby was born to Kate Middleton and Prince William, the UK was abuzz, with word spreading of a lavish, luxurious birth. But the price for the birth and the mother’s recovery, which was $8,900, is significantly lower than what the average US woman pays under normal conditions.

The US is the most expensive place in the world for giving birth, with the average price being $10,800 in 2015. This doesn’t include pre and post-birth care, which raise the price to roughly $30,000.

Kate Middleton. Image via Wikipedia.

The UK takes its royalty very seriously — and the birth of a new royal baby is no small matter. So it’s only natural that the media was abuzz with the event, presenting even the tiniest details about Kate and William’s preparations. Among these details, it was revealed that the baby was delivered in a private room in St. Mary’s Hospital’s Lindo Wing. Perks include an “en suite” bathroom, a refrigerator, and a menu of “nutritious” meals — which, call me crazy, sounds decent rather than luxurious for a woman going through the struggles of childbirth. Still, the $8,900 price tag is nothing to scoff at and seems very luxurious — until you look at figures for the USA.

According to figures compiled by The Economist and circulated by Statista, this deluxe package for 24 hours, including the non-Caesarian delivery, still costs less than an average birth in the United States, which amounts to $10,800 (2015 figures). The Guardian reports that, including all expenses, US hospitals charged $32,093 for an uncomplicated vaginal birth and newborn care, and $51,125 for a standard cesarean section.

Of course, you can make a very valid case that the UK royal house is making too many expenses, that they’re ultimately funded through public money, and that they’re often quite lavishly wasteful. But really, a more important takeaway is that, even in these extremely troubling times, the British healthcare system (be it public or private) somehow manages to be more price-efficient than the US healthcare system. Even though American insurers often negotiate lower prices, the associated costs are still much higher. This is a recurring problem for the US, which spends more on healthcare than any other country, but in many aspects falls way behind other developed nations.

It’s not like the British system is a landmark either — other developed countries also have much lower birth-associated prices. For instance, in Spain, it costs about $1,950 to deliver a child. In Australia, the price is around $5,000, and in even Switzerland, a notoriously expensive country, it’s under $8,000.

To top it all off, if Kate and William had regular jobs, they would be entitled to 37 weeks of paid parental leave and up to 50 weeks unpaid leave. American workers have no national paid family leave policy and no national mechanism to help parents stay afloat financially after bringing a child to the world.

Sudden infant death syndrome linked to a rare genetic mutation

A group of researchers discovered a new, important genetic mutation, associated with the breathing muscles, that is implicated in cot deaths. They believe future research will find a way to prevent such tragedies.

Via Pixabay/RitaE

“Previously the whole focus of trying to understand it was either the heart or the brain cells controlling breathing,” said Professor Michael Hanna of the MRC Centre for Neuromuscular Diseases at University College London, one of the authors of the new paper published in The Lancet.

Professor Hanna said that researchers now want to investigate all the other genes associated with the breathing muscles that may be implicated in cot deaths and see what role they are playing.

The newly discovered genetic mutation causes a dysfunction in the management of low oxygen levels in the infant’s blood, researchers said.  It alters the shape of a “sodium pump” that maintains an electric current to stimulate muscle contraction.

“I think the evidence is pretty compelling that some cases of SIDS are caused by sodium channel mutations,” said Prof. Hanna.
“There must be a vulnerability, and what we’re saying is that in some cases, the sodium channel is rendering them vulnerable,” he explained.

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), is also known as crib death because the seemingly healthy infants often die in their cribs during sleep. The affected babies are less than a year old. These tragic events are rare, about 300 such unexpected deaths happening in the UK every year and 2,400 in the US.

Doctors recommend to lay the babies on their back and not their front, not to smoke near them and not to share a bed with them. Time has proven that these measures reduce the risks of cot deaths, but scientists have never understood why such horrible events happened. Previous research has described one other genetic mutation in a heart gene which may play a part in SIDS.

In this new paper, researchers studied the cases of 278 children who died unexpectedly and were diagnosed with SIDS – 84 from the UK and 194 from the US. After sequencing their genome, scientists compared them with the ones of adults with no cardiovascular, neurological or respiratory diseases.

Next, researchers looked at the prevalence of the SCN4A gene that codes for a cell surface receptor found on top of breathing muscular cells. At birth, the expression of this surface receptor is low, gradually increasing during the first two years of life.

Scientists observed that the rare mutation was found in four of the children previously diagnosed with SIDS, and in none of the adults. Even though the figure may not seem relevant to you, researchers say it is highly significant because it is normally found in fewer than five people in every 100,000. The research team believes that this mutation could affect children’s breathing muscles, making them weaker. Infants are most vulnerable when sleeping in the wrong position or tangled in the bedclothes.

“In the population we studied, the evidence is strong that it is at the very least a risk factor in those cases that had it [the genetic mutation],” said Hanna. “It certainly doesn’t explain the majority of Sids,” he concluded.

Luckily, in the future, researchers will be able to find all the genes implicated in triggering SIDS and develop a method to fight this dreadful syndrome.

Taking fish oil and probiotics during pregnancy may reduce food allergies

Taking a fish oil capsule daily during pregnancy and the first few months of breastfeeding can reduce your baby’s risk of egg allergy by 30%, a new study has found.

Via Pixabay/PublicDomainPictures

Researchers from the department of medicine at Imperial College London say that omega-3, a polyunsaturated fatty acid found in fish oil, has positive, anti-inflammatory effects.

According to a 2014 study, the lifetime self-reported prevalence of common food allergies in Europe ranged from 0.1 to 6.0%. In the UK, one in 20 children suffers from food allergies, such as nut, egg, milk or wheat allergies. Food allergies are caused by chaotic functioning of the immune system, that overreacts to some types of foods. Common symptoms of food allergies include rashes, swelling, vomiting, and wheezing.

For the study we’re discussing today, the team looked at data collected from 19 trials of fish oil supplements taken during pregnancy, involving a total of 15,000 participants. They report that the reduction in allergy risk equated to 31 fewer cases of egg allergy per 1,000 children. Afterward, they also analyzed the effect of probiotic supplements taken during pregnancy and discovered a 22% reduction in the risk of eczema development in children up to the age of three.

“Our research suggests probiotic and fish oil supplements may reduce a child’s risk of developing an allergic condition, and these findings need to be considered when guidelines for pregnant women are updated,” says Dr. Robert Boyle, lead author of the research.

The NHS advises that it’s better to eat fish than take fish oil supplements, fish being an excellent source of nutrients that are good for pregnant women‘s health and for their unborn baby’s development. The main reason for this is that eating liver and liver products such as liver pâté, liver sausage or fish liver oil supplements such as cod liver oil may contain too much vitamin A, and that can harm unborn babies. The NHS also recommends that tuna and oily fish consumption should be limited, while some types of fish should be avoided completely, such as shark. Also, don’t eat raw shellfish when pregnant, as it can cause food poisoning.

Avoiding foods such as nuts, dairy, and eggs during pregnancy made no difference to a child’s allergy risk. Also, fruit, vegetables, and vitamins seemed to have no repercussion on allergy risk either, the study published in the journal PLOS Medicine showed.


American mothers are weirdly starting to eat placentas — and that might be fatally dangerous for babies

More and more American mothers are eating placentas after birth, a worrying trend fueled by celebrities with no medical backing whatsoever. What’s more, doctors are worried placentophagy may be seriously threatening the lives of newborn babies, as documented in at least a case of bacterial infection following placenta ingestion.


In case you’re not aware, the placenta is an organ attached to the lining of a woman’s womb during pregnancy, serving as the crucial link between a mother and her unborn baby. Oxygen and vital nutrients pass from the blood supply into the placenta where the umbilical cord carries them to the unborn baby. Waste products from the baby, like CO2, follow the same route but in reverse passing back along the umbilical cord to the placenta and then into the bloodstream for the mother’s body to dispose of them. After the baby is born contractions will push the placenta out through the vagina.

The placenta is thus vital to any successful childbirth — and that’s not just for human mothers. All mammal mothers grow a placenta. But why in the world you eat it though?


Delicious! Credit; Wikimedia Commons.

A large number of mammals eat the placenta, also sometimes called ‘afterbirth’. That includes herbivores like goats too. Researchers have several theories to explain placentophagia, and these include hygiene, to reduce odors that may attract predators, to replenish nutrients lost during pregnancy and to acquire additional hormones. Another train of thought is that by munching on a placenta, the mother will naturally come into contact with her young, and by licking them clean, this contact will stimulate bonding and caretaking behaviors.

Seeing how most mammals do it, should it be alright for humans too? Only camels and aquatic mammals seem to abstain from placenta gobbling. This seems to be reasoning behind a wave of placentophagia, particularly in the United States where many celebrities like the Kardashians or Alicia Silverstone endorse the practice.  “Placenta, placenta, placenta,” said Transparent and Girls star Gaby Hoffman in an interview with People “Just eat that s— up, and it does a girl good.”


No evidence whatsoever that placentophagia has health benefits

Most mothers are attracted by claims that placentophagia relieves postpartum depression and enhances milk production and nutrition. Actually, even some fathers have been swayed into dining on placentas.  “I’m going to eat the placenta,” Tom Cruise told GQ shortly before the birth of his daughter, Suri Cruise. “I’m going to eat the cord and the placenta right there.”

Proponents of placentophagia also tell us that humans have been eating placentas all the time but it’s only recently after we’ve acquired cultural norms that the practice has been forgotten, in yet another appeal to ‘we’re moving away from nature or the natural.

The science on placentophagia is far from being as conclusive and care-free as the mommy bloggers and TV celebrities that peddle its therapeutic properties would have us believe. One review found the data isn’t robust enough for any of the benefits seen in placenta-eating animals to translate to humans.

“We have very little information available, and the studies we have do not show any benefit and do not substantiate the claims that are made,” Dr. Catherine Spong, a placenta expert and the deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health, told VOX.

What about prehistoric placentophagia? That would be very difficult to say but a cross-cultural survey of over 300 contemporary human groups via the Human Relations Area Files concluded that placentophagy is not a normal part of human behavior. Exceptions make some areas of southeast Asia, where parts of the placenta are dried and used as medicine. Far more common is using placentas for ritualistic purposes, which often includes burying the placenta to ensure the health and well-being of mother and child and to prevent witchcraft with body parts. The oldest evidence of burying the placenta dates to 3,100 BC Egypt, where the ritual is depicted on a make-up kit in the grave of Pharaoh Narmer of the First Dynasty.

“Women really don’t know what they are ingesting,” said Cynthia Coyle, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University who authored a study which found no evidence to support the notion that eating the placenta raw, cooked or in pill form carries any health benefits.

Gross? Check. Potentially fatally dangerous? Check.

But can anything bad come out of the practice? Although the name derives from the Latin word for ‘cake’, the placenta doesn’t look that appetizing, to put it lightly. Luckily for placentophages, there are many companies in the United States who are specialized in dehydrating the organ and encapsulating it in a familiar pill form. That’s what an Oregon mother did to her placenta shortly after giving birth in 2016. However, the infant developed signs of respiratory distress after the mother starting taking the placenta pills and was transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit where tests showed it was diagnosed with late-onset group B strep disease (or GBS). The doctors later learned of the mother’s placentophagy and when they cultured samples from the pills, penicillin-sensitive, clindamycin-sensitive GBS was yielded. The infant was treated with ampicillin (300 mg/kg/day) for 14 days and gentamicin (3 mg/kg/daily) for the first 6 days and discharged home. However, in this case, placentophagy could have been fatal for the infant.

“No standards exist for processing placenta for consumption. Heating at 130°F (54°C) for 121 minutes is required to reduce Salmonella bacterial counts by 7 log10 (6). In this case, heating for sufficient time at a temperature adequate to decrease GBS bacterial counts might not have been reached. Consumption of contaminated placenta capsules might have elevated maternal GBS intestinal and skin colonization, facilitating transfer to the infant,” the CDC reported. 

“The placenta encapsulation process does not per se eradicate infectious pathogens; thus, placenta capsule ingestion should be avoided. In cases of maternal GBS colonization, chorioamnionitis, or early-onset neonatal GBS infection, ingestion of capsules containing contaminated placenta could heighten maternal colonization, thereby increasing an infant’s risk for late-onset neonatal GBS infection. Clinicians should inquire about a history of placenta ingestion in cases of late-onset GBS infection and educate mothers interested in placenta encapsulation about the potential risks.”

It’s not illegal to consume placenta but women who are thinking about engaging in the practice should be fully aware that there are no regulations about what is in the pills. It’s all on you. Why be so mindful of avoiding alcohol and raw fish during pregnancy but do something this sloppy right after the baby is born and very vulnerable? Bacteria are natural, too, remember. Many mammals, like sloth bears, not only eat the placenta after giving birth, but sometimes the babies too. 

Unfortunately, science is often the last thing people think about turning to when pondering whether or not something is safe to put inside their bodies. How else can we explain the fact that some people are willing buying hundred-dollar jade eggs to stick them into their vagina over night or wasp nests for that matter (!).

Giving babies their own room makes them sleep more, new study finds

The sooner they get their own room, the more they’ll sleep at night. The findings contradict the latest guidance from the pediatrics group, which recommends that parents and babies share a room, and there’s some disagreement regarding the optimum time for giving babies their own room.

Image via Pixabay.

If there’s anything baby parents dream of, it’s sleeping at night. Having a baby who sleeps at night can be a godsend while the opposite is extremely stressful and tiring. In fact, previous research has confirmed what every parent already knew: sleepless babies equate to sleepless nights and a lot of stress. But according to a new study, you can influence that, by giving babies their own room (past 9 months).

They found that at 9 months, babies with their own rooms slept 40 minutes longer at night and over 20 minutes longer overall, compared to those who were sharing a room with their parents. Intriguingly, these differences disappeared at 12 months but reappeared later. At 30 months, toddlers who had their own room since 9 months were sleeping 45 minutes longer on average. Similar trends were also observed much earlier, at babies 4 months old.

“The longer you leave a baby in the same room as a parent, the worse the outcomes are in terms of sleep,” said study author Dr. Ian Paul. “Among room sharers at 4 months, the longest sleep period was about 7 hours compared with 7 hours and 49 minutes among the solitary sleepers. Seven hours is still well above the normal range for sleep at this age,” Hauck said.

There were also differences in terms of how the babies slept. Babies with their own room were likelier to establish a healthy sleep routine (going to bed by 8 PM).

The study was well received by the community, with researchers saying that it adds much-needed information and that there are still gaps to be filled in pediatric recommendations.

“This is important information,” said Dr. Rachel Moon, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia who co-authored the American Academy of Pediatrics’ latest recommendation. “We don’t have enough info about downstream effects about what we’ve recommended.”

The reason why pediatricians usually recommend sharing a room with babies is meant to lower the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. SIDS kills around 3,700 babies in the US every year, according to the CDC — affecting almost every 1 in 1,000 babies, a considerable figure. According to Moon’s previous study, room-sharing reduces SIDS incidence by up to 50%, though it’s not clear why this happens.

“People don’t know quite why the risk is lowered,” Dr. Ari Brown, an Austin, Texas-based pediatrician and author of the Baby411 book series, previously told CNN. “I might chalk it up to a parent’s sixth sense when a baby is nearby and making erratic noises or not that helps save these babies.”

Moon also cautioned that longer sleep isn’t necessarily better sleep. Actually, in the case of SIDS, longer sleep could be counterproductive. It might be that babies get less aroused and are less likely to feel when something goes wrong. She also said that this new study focused on a sample “not terribly diverse in terms of socioeconomic or racial diversity,” and might not accurately represent the entire population. Basically, families in this study were overwhelmingly white and wealthier than the average American.

At the end of the day, there’s still so much to learn about what’s good for babies, and there are both pros and cons for room sharing. So what should you do if you’re a parent?

Well, there’s one figure on which everyone agrees on: 6 months.

“Based on the data we’ve provided and from others about safety and effectiveness,” Paul said, “6 months would seem to be a good time to transition a baby out of the parents’ room.”

In terms of SIDS, which is, of course, the larger concern here, things are also much safer after 6 months.

“During that time, be mindful that bed-sharing is a greater possibility, so mothers should be aware of this and take steps to avoid it,” she said. “After 6 months, since SIDS deaths are much less common, parents can have greater discretion in choosing what works best for them. Some may decide to keep their infants in their room longer, while others may choose to move them into their own rooms.”

Journal Reference: Ian M. Paul, Emily E. Hohman, Eric Loken, Jennifer S. Savage, Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, Patricia Carper, Michele E. Marini, Leann L. Birch — Mother-Infant Room-Sharing and Sleep Outcomes in the INSIGHT Study.

Color Dots.

Biology imparts us with instinctive color categories — culture only shapes them

Although different cultures go about ordering colors into different systems, all babies seem to share a set of common, instinctive color categories.

Researchers have a pretty good grasp of how humans see colors. Different wavelengths of light reflected by various objects go through the pupil and lands on the retina, where specialized cells (known as cones) pick up on either short, medium, or long wavelengths. They send this information up to the brain where it all gets put together and processed into the final image we see.

Color Dots.

But although every human out there sees the same way, we have different systems for explaining what we see. Some languages, like Japanese, don’t necessarily make the distinction between green and blue, two colors which most of you reading this take as obviously distinct. Culture has a big part to play in shaping how we group colors, but previous research has also shown that babies also have a kind of built-in color category system.

So how do these two fit together?

To find out, a team from the University of Sussex has studied the responses of 176 babies aged between four to six months to patches of color. They report that while cultural context does play a part, our brains are naturally inclined to bunch colors up into five basic categories.


The infants were seated in front of a wooden booth which had two windows cut out at the sides. Initially, both windows repeatedly showed the same color, but as the experiment progressed, one of them was filled with a different color at random. This new pairing was then shown multiple times, and the babies were recorded with a webcam to capture their reaction. Each baby was shown only one pair of different colors, with at least 10 babies tested for each pair.

“We wanted to find out what’s the connection between two [color categories and groupings], what is it that babies are using to make their colour categories and what can that tell us about the way we talk about colour as adults,” said said Alice Skelton, first author of the research and a doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex.

The team was looking for a phenomenon known as novelty preference in the babies — the infants will look at the second color for more if they perceive it to be different from the first-shown color. So if babies consistently look more time at the new color, even if they’re really close together on the color spectrum, that would suggest that our brains perceive it as belonging to a different category.

Some of the infants were shown very similar pairs of colors, while others were shown pairings farther apart on the color spectrum, to get a feel for where their boundaries of color categories fell. Fourteen different colors throughout the color spectrum and of the same lightness were used in total. The results show that babies order colors under five basic categories: red, yellow, green, blue, and purple.

The next step was to compare these categories to color groupings in English and 110 other nonindustrialized languages. There were obviously several differences in the way different cultures went about ordering color (such as different numbers of categories, their placement on the spectrum, and exact boundaries) but overall, their systems tied well with the five categories the team found.

Build-in color

“Infants’ categorical distinctions aligned with common distinctions in color lexicons and are organized around hues that are commonly central to lexical categories across languages,” the authors write.

“The boundaries between infants’ categorical distinctions also aligned, relative to the adaptation point, with the cardinal axes that describe the early stages of color representation in retinogeniculate pathways, indicating that infant color categorization may be partly organized by biological mechanisms of color vision.”

What’s more, four of the color boundaries the infants exhibited mapped the four extremes signals from the cone cells can produce when they are processed and interpreted in the brain. Taken together, these findings suggest that biology creates our color categories, and environmental as well as cultural factors shape them afterward — if your language doesn’t differentiate between green and blue, for example, babies learn not to make that distinction either as they age.

The findings are important as they lend a lot of weight to the color universality theory since infants show a definite color categorical structure long before they learn the words for them.

But the paper isn’t without its limitations. First off, there is a possibility that the colors the babies were exposed to from birth, for example in toys or wallpaper colors, could have determined their brain to create certain color categories. Since the study included only children from the UK, they were likely to have lived in similar conditions and be exposed to roughly the same color schemes. Retaking the test with children from other cultures should show whether these five categories are learned or instinctual.

The team now hopes to explore how our categories shift as we develop language.

The paper “Biological origins of color categorization” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Three-parent baby’s birth sparks debate among scientists, public, and officials alike

Five months ago, a three-parent baby girl was born in Mexico. Debate sparked in the wake of her birth, with one side arguing we’re “playing God” while the other points out that if a procedure gives women with a particular genetic disorder a shot at having healthy children, why not use it?

Image credits Pixabay.

Limited information about the birth has published in anticipation of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine’s scientific congress in Salt Lake City, to be held next month, where the case will be debated at length.

What we know up to now is that the baby’s parents are Jordanian and the work was performed by a US team led by Dr John Zhang, of the New Hope Fertility Clinic in New York. The mother has Leigh syndrome, a genetic disorder passed on through mitochondrial DNA. It affects a developing fetus’ nervous system, usually leading to respiratory failure within the first two or three years of life. The mother herself is healthy but has already lost two children to the disease: a girl that lived to be six years old and an eight-month-old baby.

Naturally, the event sparked a heated debate. Critics believe that it’s the same as genetically editing humans or even “playing God”, while supporters say it gives couples a chance at having healthy babies related to them that they might otherwise never have.

So let’s take a look at how it all went down.

The technique used by the New Hope team (called pronuclear transfer) involved taking the nucleus from one of the mother’s eggs — her DNA — and implanting it into a donor egg whose nucleus has previously been removed but retained healthy mitochondrial DNA. Now, what’s really important to keep in mind here is that mitochondria have a special status in the human body — kind of like a friend who keeps crashing on your couch but can cook really well so you keep him around for the quality food. They retain their own DNA, completely separate from our own. They divide when they want, independent of when our cells do it. But they’re really, really good at turning what we eat into ATP, so we allow them their unequaled sovereignty inside our cells.

That’s why many scientists in the field insist the term “three-parent baby” is inaccurate. While mitochondrial DNA is inherited solely from the maternal line, the baby’s actual genetic makeup (sans the mitochondria) only comes from two people.

Still, because the technique isn’t approved in the US, the team invoked the pretty bad-ass argument that “there are no rules” in Mexico and just flew over for the procedure.

“To save lives is the ethical thing to do,” he told New Scientist.

Professor Bert Smeets, the director of the Maastricht University Genome Centre said that the egg replacement technique has already been proven safe by previous experiments and its introduction in clinics is only a matter of time.

“A US-based research group apparently escaped the more rigid regulatory framework in the US to perform this treatment in Mexico. That is a concern, especially as the framework not only safeguards the introduction into the clinic, but also the follow-up of the children born after this treatment,” he added.

“Hopefully, now the first child is born and the heat is off, it takes away the pressure to involve patients in unsecured treatments, when good alternatives are available.”

While specialists in the field welcomed news of Dr Zhang’s work, part of the public opinion and most regulators aren’t so thrilled about it. The British Parliament, for example, voted that creating “three-parent babies” is OK in principle but haven’t yet approved any specific technique to be used. The team also took some criticism for their choice to circumvent legal issues, even if the baby seems to be healthy.

“By performing the treatment in Mexico, the team were not subject to the same stringent regulation as some other countries would insist on. We have no way of knowing how skillful or prepared they were, and this may have been a risky thing to do. On the other hand, we have what appears to be a healthy baby. Because it was successful, fewer questions will be raised but it is important that we still ask them,” said Dr Dusko Ilic of King’s College London.

“It’s unfortunate to have people decide they’re just going to quite willingly engage in this kind of reproductive tourism — to go outside of a system that is in place to create the safest, most scientifically reproducible way forward,” said Lori P. Knowles, assistant professor, adjunct, at the University of Alberta School of Public Health told the CNN.

She also pointed out that four out of the five eggs the team fertilized weren’t viable.

“It shows you the technique itself is still quite fallible,” she said.

“Which is the whole reason you’re supposed to go slowly … and not jump right into creating babies.”

The team’s findings, under the title “First live birth using human oocytes reconstituted by spindle nuclear transfer for mitochondrial DNA mutation causing Leigh syndrome”, have been published in the journal Fertility and Sterility.


Matthew Boler

This baby was born with a rare condition that deformed his skull

Meet Matthew, a bright eyes, chubby cheeked baby. On the outside he looks and behaves like any regular baby his age, with one exception: an usually oblong-shaped head. At first, his parents dismissed it as a family feature, but when Matthew turned two months and visited the pediatrician for his regular check-up the doctor immediately knew something was wrong when he couldn’t find the “soft spot” on his head. He diagnosed the baby with  dangerous condition called ‘craniosynostosis’.

Matthew Boler

Matthew Boler after being diagnosed with a rare form of craniosynostosis which caused his skull bones to fuse earlier than usual. Photo: Megan Boler

Craniosynostosis is a birth defect in which one or more of the joints between the bones of the baby’s skull close prematurely. This can be particularly dangerous since the brain needs room to develop and the fused joints hampers it. To make things worse, Matthew was diagnosed with a rare form of craniosynostosis called sagittal synostosis which fused Matthew’s  skull to the back of his head even earlier that it was supposed to happen.

“His brain was growing underneath but the skull doesn’t allow for it because of the way it’s fusued,” said Dr. Sandi Lam, Director of Craniofacial Surgery Program at Texas Children’s Hospital. “There’s no medicine that will unfuse the bone, the treatment is surgery and basically we have to cut out the bad bone.”

On the bright side, Matthew’s skull is very thing meaning it can be opened up using “different types of instruments and use endoscope to see everything,” according to Lam.

Matthew shortly after surgery. The improvement is striking! Photo: Megan Boler.

Matthew shortly after surgery. The improvement is striking! Photo: Megan Boler.

The surgery was performed on the 10-weeks-old Matthews and amazingly within 72 hours his skull reverted to a normal shape.

“Because of all of this growth that is happening the brain really helps make the baby’s new head shape. It rounds everything out from inside out and helps guide how everything heals up,” said Lam.

“In a 10-hour period the swelling went down and ever since then he hasn’t looked back,” said Megan Boler, Matthew’s mother.

Following such surgery, babies typically need to to wear a special helmet almost 24 hours a day for three to 12 months. Matthew, however, only had to wear it for four months. Now, just weeks after Matthew’s first birthday, his mother says you can’t even tell there was ever something wrong with him. Modern medicine, at its finest.


newborn baby transplant

First new-born organ transplant in the UK saves two lives

In a first for the UK, doctors have transplanted the kidneys and liver cells of a newborn baby girl to two recipients. The procedure, a milestone in neonatal care, is set to become more common once the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health will release its new set of guidelines this year. Elsewhere, newborn organ transplants were also performed in Spain, USA, Canada and Australia, but this was the first such attempt in the UK. Doctors hope to see other clinics around the country performing the same service, which they said gave comfort to grieving families and had the potential to transform the lives of others.

Making good out of a tragedy

newborn baby transplant

Doctors in the UK perform the first ever baby organ transplant in the country. Image: Smart Mom

Doctors at Hammersmith hospital, UK, describe the case of a newborn girl who had been starved of oxygen before birth and despite resuscitation had profound brain damage. Her brave parents agreed to offer their baby girl’s organs for transplant, once they were informed she had no chance of survival. The operation went ahead when the girl’s heart stopped six days after she was born.

Operating on an infant is extremely difficult to delicate. During this stage, the kidneys only measure 5 cm in length. These were transplanted to patient whose own had failed, while her liver cells were transfused into a second patient. Information about the patients in question was not disclosed, but doctors say that despite the girl was only a few days old, her organs can sustain other infants, older children and even adults.

“We are pleased the first transplant of organs from a newborn in the UK was a success and we praise the brave decision of the family to donate their baby’s organs,” said Prof James Neuberger of NHS Blood and Transplant.

“The sad reality is for everybody to get the lifesaving transplant they are desperately in need of, more families who are facing the tragic loss of their young child will need to agree to donation.”

Dr Gaurav Atreja, who was involved in the transplant, told the BBC: “This turned out to be a positive thing for the family. They could see something positive out of a negative experience. We hope that neonatal units across the UK will actively start thinking about this noble cause.”

Organs are transplanted from a donor only when the donor is declared brain dead, yet there are no guidelines in this respect for infants less than two months old – doctors are not allowed to declare them brain dead. For babies older than two months, doctors can use a series of neurological tests, including the reaction of their pupils to bright light, to confirm brain stem death. If parents previously gave their consent, then the baby’s organs are quickly harvested.

Child Kidney

Given the success of this novel procedure in the UK, doctors hope that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which is currently reviewing the matter, will allow newborn children to become eligible for donors as well. According to Joe Brierley, a consultant intensivist at Great Ormond Street children’s hospital, in most neonatal units one or two babies who die each year may be suitable organ donors.

“This is about giving the parents of a dying baby choices and their choice to help someone else is a fantastic gift for other parents. It won’t be right for some, but it will be for others,” he said for the Guardian. “Something good can come from the tragedy.”

A two-minute delay in cutting the umbilical cord provides health benefits to babies

A new study conducted by Spanish researchers and published in the prestigious journal Pediatrics has revealed that late clamping of the umbilical cord leads to increased anti-oxidant capacity of mature newborns, and the moderation of inflammatory effects in the case of those born from induced labor. In other words, it leads to a better development in their first days of life.

The moment of clamping the umbilical cord has significant health effects on the baby.

Scientists conducted their study on 64 healthy pregnant women who went into labor in the San Cecilio Clinical Hospital in Granada, where the researchers are working. Half of the babies had their umbilical cord cut immediately, and half had it cut after 2 minutes. The results suggest that there is significant advantage in cutting the umbilical cord later; newborns who had it cut later rather than sooner there was an increase in the antioxidant capacity as well as moderation in the inflammatory effects. Which begs the question: why are we so eager to cut a biological cord responsible for blood and nutrient transfer?

The umbilical cord, also called a navel string or birth cord is a conduit between the developing embryo or fetus and the placenta. Before the baby is born, the umbilical cord is physiologically and genetically part of the fetus. The cord supports the baby with oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood from the placenta while also pumping deoxygenated, nutrient-depleted blood through the umbilical arteries back to the placenta. After the baby is born, the cord needs to be cut… but when? Many doctors have expressed concern that the cord is being cut too soon, and the science seems to back this up.

A Cochrane review in 2013 came to the conclusion that delayed cord clamping (between one and three minutes after birth) is “likely to be beneficial as long as access to treatment for jaundice requiring phototherapy is available”. Also, delayed clamping resulted in an increased birth weight of on average about 100 g, and an increased hemoglobin concentration of on average 1.5 g/dL with half the risk of being iron deficient at three and six months, but an increased risk of jaundice requiring phototherapy.

A year earlier, in 2012, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists officially endorsed delaying clamping of the umbilical cord for 30–60 seconds with the newborn held below the level of the placenta, but other research suggested clamping the cord later. A meta-analysis showed that delaying clamping of the umbilical cord in full-term neonates for a minimum of 2 minutes following birth is beneficial to the newborn in giving improved hematocrit, iron status as measured by ferritin concentration and stored iron, as well as a reduction in the risk of anemia.

All in all, there seem to be pretty good arguments both for, and against cutting the umbilical cord immediately (30-60 seconds) and later. For the first time, a study has analyzed how the impact of clamping affects oxidative and inflammatory stress produced in both the mother and the newborn.

“Our study demonstrates that late clamping of the umbilical cord has a beneficial effect upon the antioxidant capacity and reduces the inflammatory signal induced during labour, which could improve the development of the newborn during his or her first days of life”, Ochoa concluded.

Based on materials from the University of Granada.