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Developmental biology - Brain Development

Why Newborns Root

Measuring a newborn's brain response to touch...


Infant brains develop quicker than at any other time in life. Seen in the context of a baby's survival, facial sensation is absolutely needed for breastfeeding. For example, if a newborn baby's right cheek is lying on her mother's breast, she uses this information to turn her head to her right to feed - a behavior called 'rooting'. Finding a way to measure this brain response is important to our understanding of newborn brain development.

Babies use their sense of touch - called facial somatosensation - to find and then latch onto their mother's nipple. They have this ability from the moment of birth. But premature babies often have difficulty feeding, presumed to be due to underdeveloped facial nerves. However, established methods for evoking brain activity in response to touch aren't suitable to be used on newborn babies, much less on premature babies.
To investigate infant nerve development, this present study looked at seven babies who were, on average, seven days old and in University College Hospital's postnatal and neonatal wards. Each was born before 37 weeks, and therefore premature.

A new device that converts touch into a weak electrical signal was newly developed for this study. It is worn on the medical specialist's fingertip and under a clinical glove, soft to the touch. Researchers from University College London (UCL), University College Hospital (UCLH), Imperial College London and UniversitŠ Campus Bio-Medico di Roma developed the new device to study the sense of touch on a baby's cheek and follow that signal in the baby's brain, using electroencephalography (EEG).

A baby can be lightly tapped on its cheek and its brain responses measured, along with the force of the tapping finger tip. The report, 'A novel sensor design for accurate measurement of facial somatosensation in pre-term infants', is published in the journal PLOS ONE.
"This research provides a way of understanding how pre-term babies process touch information, and could help medical professionals to make informed decisions relating to their development. We've proved that we can record the sense of touch from the face. This means that for premature babies, it is possible to study how they process the tactile information that they receive from the face, how this changes as they mature and whether disruption of this process might lead to longer-term feeding problems."

Lorenzo Fabrizi PhD, Department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology, University College London (UCL), United Kingdom.

According to professor Etienne Burdet (Imperial College London): "We had to develop a stimulating system that was safe to use on the delicate face of the babies and acceptable to their parents. We used an iterative design approach to develop a seamless wearable device that can measure a natural finger tap to the skin. After we found that conventional sensors were not practical, we developed a dedicated sensor."

Abstract
Facial somatosensory feedback is critical for breastfeeding in the first days of life. However, its development has never been investigated in humans. Here we develop a new interface to measure facial somatosensation in newborn infants. The novel system allows to measure neuronal responses to touching the face of the subject by synchronously recording scalp electroencephalography (EEG) and the force applied by the experimenter. This is based on a dedicated force transducer that can be worn on the finger underneath a clinical nitrile glove and linked to a commercial EEG acquisition system. The calibrated device measures the pressure applied by the investigator when tapping the skin concurrently with the resulting brain response. With this system, we were able to demonstrate that taps of 192 mN (mean) reliably elicited facial somatosensory responses in 7 pre-term infants. These responses had a time course similar to those following limbs stimulation, but more lateral topographical distribution consistent with body representations in primary somatosensory areas. The method introduced can therefore be used to reliably measure facial somatosensory responses in vulnerable infants.

Authors
Alessandro Donadio , Kimberley Whitehead , Franck Gonzalez, Elisabeth Wilhelm, Domenico Formica, Judith Meek, Lorenzo Fabrizi and Etienne Burdet.


Acknowledgements
This research was supported by the UK Medical Research Council, European Commission grants, and a UK EPSRC MOTION grant. The force transducer was developed at Imperial College London and the trial was carried out at UCL and the UCLH Elizabeth Garrett Anderson wing. Ethical approval was obtained from the NHS Research Ethics Committee along with informed parental consent for each baby.

About UCL (University College London)
UCL was founded in 1826. We were the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to open up university education to those previously excluded from it, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. We are among the world's top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has over 39,000 students from 150 countries and over 12,500 staff. Our annual income is more than £1 billion.

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Dec 10, 2018   Fetal Timeline   Maternal Timeline   News   News Archive




If a newborn baby's right cheek is lying on her mother's breast, she uses this information to turn her head to the right to feed - a behavior called 'rooting'. Image Credit: Public Domain.


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