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Developmental Biology - Brain Development

Newborn Baby Hiccups May Help Brain Growth

Babies hiccup frequently, triggering waves of brain signals helping baby learn how to regulate breathing...

Each time a newborn baby hiccups, it triggers a large wave of brain signals which could help the baby learn how to regulate their breathing, finds a new University College London (UCL), United Kingdom led study.

The study, published in Clinical Neurophysiology, was based on brain scans of newborn infants.

"The reasons for why we hiccup are not entirely clear, but there may be a developmental reason, given that fetuses and newborn babies hiccup so frequently," said the study's lead author, research associate Kimberley Whitehead PhD; Department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology; University College London, United Kingdom.
Pre-term infants are particularly prone to hiccups, as they spend an estimated 1% of their time hiccupping - roughly 15 minutes a day. Hiccups begin in the womb at just nine weeks gestational age, making them one of the earliest established patterns of activity.

The present study involved 13 newborn infants in a neonatal ward who had a bout of hiccups. The babies were pre-term and full-term, ranging from 30 to 42 weeks gestational age, so their development could reflect what's typical in the last trimester of pregnancy.

Brain activity was recorded with EEG (electroencephalography) electrodes placed on the scalp, while movement sensors on the infants' torsos provided a linked record of when they were hiccupping.
The same researchers at the University College London (UCL) have previously suggested that babies kicking in the womb may be creating mental maps of their own bodies, and say their new findings may reflect the same process for the internal body.

Researchers found that contractions of the diaphragm muscle from a hiccup evoked a pronounced response in the brain's cortex - two large brainwaves followed by a third.
As the third brainwave is similar to that evoked by a sound, a newborn baby may be able to link the 'hic' sound with the feel of diaphragm muscle contraction.

Researchers say that postnatal processing of multi-sensory inputs is important to develop brain connections.
"The activity resulting from a hiccup may be helping the baby's brain learn how to monitor the breathing muscles so that eventually breathing can be voluntary controlled by moving the diaphragm up and down."

"When we are born, the circuits which process body sensations are not fully developed, so the establishment of such networks is a crucial developmental milestone for newborns."

Lorenzo Fabrizi PhD, UCL Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacolog; and senior author of the research.

"Our findings have prompted us to wonder whether hiccups in adults, which appear to be mainly a nuisance, may in fact be a vestigial reflex, left over from infancy when it had an important function."

Kimberley Whitehead PhD.

Mitochondria are the primary source of ATP for placental growth, transport, and hormone synthesis. However, to date, little is known about the developmental regulation or functional significance of placental mitochondria during normal or suboptimal intrauterine conditions, such as oxygen deprivation (hypoxia). Here we show that, in the placenta, mitochondria adapt their use of oxygen and nutrients (carbohydrate and fat) to best support both placental growth and function, as well as fetal development, during normal and hypoxic conditions. These data are significant because they improve our mechanistic understanding of human pregnancies compromised by fetal growth restriction at sea level and high altitude.

Objective Involuntary isolated body movements are prominent in pre-term and full-term infants. Proprioceptive and tactile afferent feedback following limb muscle contractions is associated with somatotopic EEG responses. Involuntary contractions of respiratory muscles, primarily the diaphragm hiccups are also frequent throughout the human perinatal period during active behavioural states. Here we tested whether diaphragm contraction provides afferent input to the developing brain, as following limb muscle contraction. Methods In 13 infants on the neonatal ward (3042?weeks corrected gestational age), we analysed EEG activity (18-electrode recordings in six subjects; 17-electrode recordings in five subjects; 16-electrode recordings in two subjects), time-locked to diaphragm contractions (n?=?1316) recorded with a movement transducer affixed to the trunk. Results All bouts of hiccups occurred during wakefulness or active sleep. Each diaphragm contraction evoked two initial event-related potentials with negativity predominantly across the central region, and a third event-related potential with positivity maximal across the central region. Conclusions Involuntary contraction of the diaphragm can be encoded by the brain from as early as ten weeks prior to the average time of birth. Significance Hiccups frequently observed in neonates can provide afferent input to developing sensory cortices in pre-term and full-term infants.

Kimberley Whitehead, Laura Jones, Maria Pureza Laudiano-Draya, Judith Meek, Lorenzo Fabrizi.

This work was supported by the Medical Research Council UK (MR/L019248/1, MR/M006468/1, and MR/S003207/1), which had no role in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data, or the writing of the manuscript. We acknowledge the support of the UCL/UCLH Biomedical Research Centre. We thank the families who participated in our neonatal research program.

None of the authors have potential conflicts of interest to be disclosed.

The research was carried out at University College London (UCL) Neuroscience, Physiology & Pharmacology and the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Maternity Wing at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH), and funded by the Medical Research Council, with support from the National Institute for Health Research UCLH Biomedical Research Centre.

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Nov 20 2019   Fetal Timeline   Maternal Timeline   News  

Hiccups begin in the womb at just nine weeks gestational age, making them one of the earliest
patterns of infant activity. They may even be helping the baby's brain learn how to monitor their
breathing muscles. Also, kicking in the womb may create mental maps to a baby of it's own body.
CREDIT HCL Video of New born Infant Hiccups.

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