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10 Amazing Facts About the Infant Brain

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While there’s little argument that babies are generally cute, it’s far more difficult to determine how intelligent they are, since we can’t measure their know-how by standards of adult brain development. Yet infants’ brains develop so rapidly they are pure, consolidated potential in their first three years. Consider that a 4-week-old fetus forms new neurons at a rate of 250,000 every minute, and by the time a child is three, their brain will reach 80 percent of adult volume and process close to 1000 trillion connections between neurons. Here are 10 mind-blowing facts about the amazing infant brain.

1. ALL BABIES ARE BORN "EARLY."

Thanks to the size of the average human birth canal, and the heavy metabolic burden a baby places on its mother in gestation, a baby’s head can only be so big and still emerge from its mother, which means babies are born with underdeveloped brains that are hypersensitive to stimulus. One popular theory explaining this is that their first three months of life outside the womb equal a “fourth trimester” which may be why newborns like to be wrapped tightly and respond well to loud white noise, details which mimic the conditions of life in utero. Further theory suggests that humans are designed to be social and cultural animals, and that being born earlier may allow an infant’s brain to soak up the many impressions and senses of being raised within a group of people. 

2. BABIES ARE BORN WITH ALL THE NEURONS THEY WILL EVER HAVE. 

Assuming normal development, a healthy baby will emerge from the womb with 100 billion neurons, nearly twice as many neurons as adults, in a brain that’s half the size. This massive number of neurons is necessary for the tremendous amount of learning a baby has to do in its first year of life. While brain volume will double by the age of 3, not all of those neurons will stick around; synaptic pruning takes place as a baby ages, in which the brain gets rid of weaker synaptic connections in favor of stronger ones.  

3. BIRTH TO AGE 3 SEES THE FASTEST RATE OF BRAIN DEVELOPMENT IN THE ENTIRE HUMAN LIFE SPAN.

Though you may think your darling is growing like a weed as chubby toddlerhood gives way to lanky kid, in the first three years of your child’s life, their brain is growing faster than any other body part. At birth, a baby's brain is about one-third the size of an adult's brain. In 90 days, it more than doubles its volume, to 55 percent of its final size. The cerebellum in particular, a brain structure at the back of the brain involved in controlling movement, grows the fastest of all brain structures; in just three months it will be 110 percent bigger than it was at birth.

4. MOST OF THE ENERGY A BABY EXPENDS IS CONCENTRATED IN THE BRAIN.

As a result of all that rapid brain development, 60 percent of a baby’s metabolic energy (primarily the consumption of glucose) is spent on growing those soon-to-be massive brains. In contrast, the brain of an adult uses only about 25 percent of the body’s metabolic energy. 

5. BABIES' BRAINS PREPARE FOR SPEECH LONG BEFORE THEY UTTER A WORD. 

A study of 7-month-old babies at the University of Washington showed activation of motor parts of babies’ brains associated with the physical aspects of speech—Broca’s area and the cerebellum—before they actually began to speak. This suggests that the brain sets up a transitional groundwork in a process known as “analysis by synthesis” in which the brain predicts the motor movements that will be required to make the sounds of speech and prepares to do so.

6. BILINGUAL BABIES' BRAINS HAVE STRONGER EXECUTIVE FUNCTION.

Not only are babies capable at birth of learning any language, those babies who are spoken to regularly in two or more languages have better executive function later in life, specifically the ability to control attention to conflicting perceptual or representational features of a problem. In other words, bilingual children have better attention or focus, which bodes well for school and work performance. 

7. PHYSICAL TOUCH STRENGTHENS BABIES' SYNAPSES.

Babies who receive regular touch have stronger neuronal connections, and greater overall well-being. It’s well known now that babies who are deprived of touch suffer a number of negative health effects, from low weight to emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression. A study of 92 7- to 9 year-olds, who had previously been studied in preschool, showed that those who had received more nurture by their mothers (or caregivers) had a thicker hippocampus than those who were not as well nurtured. A stronger hippocampus is associated with improved memory, better focus, ability to retain learning, and more.

8. BABY BRAINS ARE HARDWIRED TO PREFER THEIR MOTHER'S SCENT.

Much of the infant-mother bond in the early days is determined by smell and touch, more specifically the bonding hormone oxytocin, which can induce a feeling of euphoria and love in humans. Studies have shown that babies are imprinted with, and attracted to, the scent of their own amniotic fluid, which helps them to find their mother’s nipple. Over several days, healthy babies grow to prefer the scent of their mother’s breast. One study even showed that formula-fed babies still prefer the odor of their mother’s breast to that of their formula up to two weeks after birth.

9. A BABY'S UNWILLINGNESS TO LEAVE A PARENT SIGNALS THE DEVELOPMENT OF LONG-TERM MEMORY.

Mothers who find they must pry a suddenly crying baby off of them when they prepare to leave might be relieved to know it may be the earliest signs of long-term memory development. Jerome Kagan, a Harvard University professor of psychology, suggests that around 9 months, an infant’s unwillingness to leave their parent is a sign that the child has a clear memory of his or her mother “being there” and can now form an emotional association to the event. 

10. HYPOTHERMIA CAN PROTECT NEWBORN BRAINS. 

A new study at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles of newborns treated for hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE)—a condition that occurs when the brain is deprived of an adequate oxygen supply—found that inducing hypothermia through a targeted cooling of the brain had a neuroprotective effect.

Without treatment, these babies often develop cerebral palsy or other severe complications that affect as many as 1 million babies worldwide. The study found that hypothermia works by reducing energy metabolism, but also reduced the synthesis of glutamate and other excitatory neurotransmitters.   

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Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.
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What's Really Happening When We See 'Stars' After Rubbing Our Eyes?
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.

It's likely happened to you before: You start rubbing your eyes and almost immediately begin seeing colors, specks, and swirls from behind your closed lids. So what's happening when you see these 2001-esque "stars"? Do they only occur upon rubbing? Does everyone experience them?

Before we can get to what causes the lights, we need to understand a bit about how the eyes work. Angie Wen, a cornea surgeon at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, tells Mental Floss that the retina—the innermost layer of the eye—consists of millions of cells, or photoreceptors. These cells, she says, "are responsible for receiving information from the outside world and converting them to electrical impulses that are transmitted to the brain by the optic nerve. Then, the brain interprets them as images representing the world around us."

However, what we see doesn't just stop there. Sometimes "we see light that actually comes from inside our eyes or from electric stimulation of the brain rather than from the outside world," Wen says. "These bursts of seemingly random intense and colorful lights are called phosphenes, and appear due to electrical discharges from the cells inside our eyes that are a normal part of cellular function."

People have been writing and theorizing about phosphenes for thousands of years. Greek philosophers thought the bursts of light were the result of fire inside our heads: "The eye obviously has fire within it, for when the eye is struck fire flashes out," wrote Alcmaeon of Croton (6th–5th century BCE), a philosopher and early neuroscientist, of the swirls and specks someone sees after getting a blow to the head. A century later, Plato—who believed that a "visual current" [PDF] streamed out of the eye—wrote that "Such fire as has the property, not of burning, but of yielding a gentle light they [the Gods] contrived should become the proper body of each day."

Plato's take was still the dominant one through the Middle Ages. Eventually, Newton (1642–1727) theorized a concept that's more in line with what's believed today about these strange sparkly visions: The phenomenon is due to light that's produced and observed when pressure and motion is placed on the eyes.

Eleonora Lad, an associate professor of ophthalmology at Duke University Medical Center who has a background in neuroscience, explains exactly why eye rubbing generates these visions: "Most vision researchers believe that phosphenes result from the normal activity of the visual system after stimulation of one of its parts from some stimulus other than light," including putting external pressure on the eyes. (Interestingly, due to retinal damage, blind people can't see phosphenes caused by pressure, but they can see them when their visual cortex is electrically stimulated. In hopes of turning this phenomenon into improved vision for the blind, scientists have developed a cortical visual prosthesis, implanted in the visual cortex, that generates patterns of phosphenes. The device has been approved by the FDA for clinical trial.)

As Alcmaeon rightly pointed out, there are causes for the bursts of light beyond just rubbing your eyes: Getting hit in the eye can produce this phenomenon—as can a sneeze, a surprisingly powerful event that tends to clamp our eyes shut, Wen says.

Receiving an MRI or EEG may also trigger it. MRIs, for example, produce a changing magnetic field which can stimulate the visual cortex, making a person see these flashing lights. When it comes to an EEG, depending on the brain stimulation frequency band (Hz) used, some patients experience the phenomenon when closing their eyes, which is believed to come from retinal stimulation during the process.

And the activity doesn't only happen on Earth; astronauts in space have also been known to experience them. As reported in 2006 in the journal Vision Research, "over 80 percent of astronauts serving in today's NASA or ESA (European Space Agency) programs have perceived phosphenes at least in some missions and often over several orbits." They're mainly attributed to interactions between the eye and cosmic ray particles in space, outside the Earth's protective magnetic field.

No matter the cause, the bursts of light are perfectly normal—but that doesn't mean you should engage in excessive eye rubbing. Wen says ophthalmologists advise against rubbing your eyes or applying vigorous pressure; according to Lad, too much rubbing may be damaging to the cornea and lens or "result in a loss of fatty tissue around the eyes, causing the eyes to look deep-set."

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Why Your Knuckles Make That Satisfying Cracking Sound, According to Science
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Scientific curiosity is not always burdened by matters of great consequence. Over the years, considerable money and time has been applied to matters involving facial recognition between sheep, whether the flow of urine is impeded by someone watching you pee, and whether humans can capably swim in a pool full of syrup. (They can, almost as well as water.)

Now, researchers from Stanford University and Ecole Polytechnique in France have turned the roving eye of science to the phenomenon of knuckle-cracking. According to Gizmodo, a computer simulation was created to confirm an earlier theory that the audible noise that comes from the human hand after putting pressure on the knuckle was the result of gas bubbles popping inside the finger joint.

Conclusion: Probably true.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, demonstrated that microscopic bubbles inside the lubricating synovial fluid of the joint collapse when a knuckle-cracking session commences. To use an imperfect analogy, the cavitation bubbles are like the body’s Bubble Wrap. Popping them produces an audible—and for many, a very pleasing—sound.

To compile data, researchers took geometric representations of the joint's movements during a cracking session and turned them into mathematical equations. (Imaging has not been shown to be very productive in this field, as the crack takes only about 300 milliseconds and is not easily visualized.) The software models demonstrated that pressure shifts in the joint fluid increase pressure on the gas bubbles. Unlike packing material, however, the gas bubbles don't really perforate—they experience a partial collapse but remain suspended in the joint.

So does this solve the mystery surrounding cracked knuckles? Not entirely. Because it was a simulation, there's a possibility of mathematical error. Proponents of alternative theories—that it's not bubbles collapsing but bubbles being created that produce the noise—feel there's more work to be done. We can only hope a complete understanding will come in our lifetime. Fingers crossed. And cracking.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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