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.   

Why Do We Get Shivers Up Our Spines?

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iStock.com/martin-dm

Picture this: You're sitting on your couch in the dark alone, watching a scary movie. The killer is walking toward an unsuspecting victim, then suddenly jumps out at her. In that moment, the hairs on your body stand up, and you get a shiver down your spine. When you go for a walk on a crisp morning, the same thing happens. When the music swells during your favorite song, you get the shivers again, this time with the little goosebumps on your arms that appear when you get that sensation.

There's a good reason for shivers and goosebumps: they're your body's response to emotion or stress. We got this from our animal ancestors. When they were cold, the hair on their bodies would stand up—the movement of the arrector pili muscle would cause the skin to contract, raising each hair—to provide an extra layer of insulation. This response is also in play when animals feel threatened: their natural reaction is to try to look bigger than their attacker, so their skin and hair expand to play up that effect. The part of the brain called the hypothalamus is what controls this reaction.

So why do goosebumps—also known as cutis anserina or piloerection—appear, aside from the functional purpose of looking larger or creating insulation? It's because our emotions are also connected with the hypothalamus, so sometimes goosebumps are just our body reacting to our brain's signals of intense emotion.

When we feel things like love, fear, or sadness, the hypothalamus sends a signal to our bodies that produces adrenaline in our blood. The signal triggers the arrector pili muscles to contract, and then we have goosebumps caused by emotion. The sudden adrenaline rush may also cause sweaty palms, tears, increased blood pressure, or shivers.

When we listen to music and get shivers, it is a mixture of subjective emotions toward the music and physiological arousal. If we hear a song we get excited about, or a song that makes us sad, the hypothalamus reacts to the sudden change in emotion and we physically feel the shiver along our spine.

This article was republished in 2019.

10 Facts About the Lungs

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iStock/pixelfit

Every cell in your body needs oxygen in order to function properly. Your lungs are obviously crucial in achieving this goal—once you take air into your lungs, oxygen enters the bloodstream and moves through your body. Each cell makes a trade, exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide—which your bloodstream then transports back to the lungs. When you exhale, you’re actually expelling carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen, and water vapor.

So how does your body make this happen? Bronchial tubes connect your lungs to your throat and mouth. These are lined with tiny little hairs called cilia that move in wave-like patterns, which pushes mucus up your throat. At the base of the bronchial tubes are tiny air sacs that hold the air you breathe in, called alveoli. Your right lung has three balloon-like sections, called lobes, which are full of spongy tissue. Your left lung has only two lobes, to make room for the heart. They sit in a special membrane called the pleura, that separates your lungs from the wall of your chest. Altogether, your lungs are a highly efficient machine—and they do a lot more than you might think.

1. Taking in oxygen is only one of your lungs' most important jobs. 

Yes, you need oxygen to live, but if you didn’t expel the carbon dioxide in your lungs, you would die. Carbon dioxide acts as an acid in the body and is generated by muscle action, Wendie Howland, a nurse with Howland Health Consulting, tells Mental Floss. “Your body operates optimally at a fairly narrow pH range, and when you generate extra CO2 by, say, running up the stairs, you bring your pH into the normal range almost immediately by excreting CO2 by breathing deeply.” So exhaling that more toxic CO2 is as important as taking in oxygen.

2. Think of your lungs as big ol' buckets.

Rather than thinking of your lungs as big balloons, Cascari says, “Think of your lungs as buckets of blood with air bubbles going through them.” In fact, your lungs contain as much blood as the entire rest of your body, which is why your center of gravity is above your waist. They produce blood cells as well. Every time your heart beats, it sends an equal amount of blood to your lungs as it does everywhere else in your body. “It’s this incredible system that can respire—an exchange of gas from the air into the blood and the lungs—without leaking. The fact that that goes on day in day out for our whole life is pretty amazing,” he says.

3. Your lungs are huge.

Your lungs are one of your biggest organs, but you might be surprised to learn that if you spread out the surface area of the alveoli, the sacs where oxygen and blood interface, you could cover an entire tennis court, Schroeder says.

4. Without mucus, your lungs would dry up. 

You may not be a big fan of mucus when it’s clogging your chest or nose during a cold, but it’s a “highly underrated, powerful infection-fighting agent in your body with some pretty cool features," says Ray Casciari, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California. “It’s actually cleaner than blood,” Casciari reveals. “If you take bacteria and expose it to mucus, the mucus will stop the growth of the bacteria. Whereas blood will actually support the growth of the bacteria.” (In fact, researchers in laboratories often deliberately use blood to grow bacteria.) Your mucus is such an important protective agent that you’d die without it. “If you didn’t have mucus in your lungs, you would dehydrate, losing so much water through evaporation that you would die within minutes,” he says. On the other hand, too much mucus production is dangerous.

5. Whatever you inhale quickly goes from your lungs to your brain. 

In under seven seconds, to be precise. Because of your lungs’ enormous surface area and “its intimate relationship with blood vessels that surround it,” says Scott Schroeder, director of Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine at the Floating Hospital of Tufts Medical Center, an inhalation of smoke or a vaporized medicine can reach the brain very quickly.

6. Coughing isn't always bad for your lungs.

Even when you aren’t sick, a normal person coughs about 10 times per day, says Schroeder—whether due to a sticky piece of food, an allergen you accidentally inhale, or your own mucus generated by exercise.

7. Asthma isn't just one disease affecting lung function.

Asthma, which causes wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath, is actually a number of different illnesses under one name, Schroeder says. The good news is that deaths due to asthma are very uncommon, and have decreased significantly over the last 20 years, he reports (with one notable exception—African-American men age 18–24). But it doesn’t affect everyone equally. Women are much more likely to develop asthma as adults than men, especially if they are overweight. And people in urban areas are more likely to suffer from asthma than those in rural areas, likely due to increased particulate matter in the air from car exhaust and industrial pollutants.

8. Exercise can make asthma—and your lung function—better.

Asthma is actually improved by cardiovascular exercise. Schroeder says there are no sports that people with asthma cannot participate in, “except scuba diving, but I don’t consider that a sport.”

9. You can get lung cancer even if you've never smoked.

“You can spend your whole life in a very clean environment, never having smoked, and still get lung cancer,” Casciari says. Not all lung cancer is caused by cigarette smoking (though the majority is). Casciari cites occupational exposure, radiation exposure, and potential genetic risk factors, although researchers are still exploring the role genetics play. “Folks tend to think of their lungs very little, and when they do, they think, ‘I don’t smoke, so I’m ok,’ but that’s not completely true.”

10. Breakthroughs in lung cancer treatments has improved survival rates. 

For decades, toxic chemotherapy has been the best medicine for treating lung cancer, but it comes with intense side effects. However, several new breakthroughs have recently improved outcomes for patients, says Casciari. Thoracic CT scans, for example, improve survival by 20 percent by providing earlier diagnosis and treatments. Furthermore, new minimally invasive surgery techniques have made recovery from lung cancer surgery much easier, with people being discharged on the same day of surgery. Finally, immunotherapies that target specific cancer markers and harness the immune system itself to fight cancer cells have improved outcomes—and decreased side effects—for lung cancer patients.

This story was first published in 2017.

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