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.   

The Surgeon Who Removed His Own Appendix

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On February 15, 1921, Dr. Evan O’Neill Kane decided to test a theory. At the time, people with heart conditions and other serious ailments could not undergo most basic surgeries because general anesthesia was considered too dangerous. Rather than knocking these patients out, Kane wondered if he could simply give them a local anesthetic.

There was only one way to be sure: Kane decided to give himself an appendectomy.

As the chief surgeon at Kane Summit Hospital in Pennsylvania, Kane could probably perform the procedure blindfolded. The 60-year-old physician had performed more than 4000 appendectomies over his 37-year medical career. (Besides, the timing was right: He had chronic appendicitis and the organ needed to be removed anyway.)

For his experiment, Kane decided to numb the area with novocaine. “Sitting on the operating table propped up by pillows, and with a nurse holding his head forward that he might see, he calmly cut into his abdomen, carefully dissecting the tissues and closing the blood vessels as he worked his way in,” The New York Times reported. “Locating the appendix, he pulled it up, cut [it] off, and bent the stump under.” Finished with the dirty work, he let his assistants tie up the wound.

When a reporter visited a few hours later, Kane declared he was “feeling fine” [PDF].

Overall, he was pleased with the procedure. “I now know exactly how the patient feels when being operated upon under local treatment, and that was one of the objects I had in mind when I determined to perform the operation myself,” Kane later explained to The New York Times [PDF]. “I now fully understand just how to use the anesthesia to best advantage when removing the appendix from a person who has heart or other trouble that prohibits the use of a complete anesthesia.”

This was hardly the beginning—or end—to Kane’s career as his own surgeon. Two years earlier, he had amputated his own infected finger. And 10 years after the self-appendectomy, when he was 70, Kane calmly operated on his own hernia, joking with nurses throughout the whole 50-minute operation. Thirty-six hours later, he was back in the operating room, this time patching up other people.

Kane wouldn't be the last doctor to scoop out his own appendix. In 1961, Leonid Rogozov, the sole physician at the Soviet Union's Antarctic research station, performed an emergency self-appendectomy with the station's meteorologist and mechanic as his assistants [PDF]. More recently, Beirut surgeon Dr. Ira Kahn allegedly removed the organ himself in 1986. Unlike Kane, however, Kahn didn’t put himself under the knife for the sake of a medical experiment: Stuck in a traffic jam and unable to make it to the hospital for emergency surgery, he performed the procedure from the comfort of his car.

10 Smart Facts About Wisdom Teeth

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Like puberty and your first heartbreak, the painful process of getting your wisdom teeth removed is one of those cumbersome coming-of-age rituals that many people are forced to endure. But why do we have wisdom teeth when they seem to only cause problems? Read on to find out more about the humble third molar—the last tooth many of us get as adults.

1. THEY HAVEN’T SERVED ANY PURPOSE FOR HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a prehistoric man or woman. You subsist largely on raw meat, roots, and leaves. You’d need some pretty powerful chompers to cut up your food, right? That was where your third molars—also known as wisdom teeth—came in. Today, our palates are a little more refined, and we prefer softer foods (think avocado toast and smoothies). Plus, modern cooking tools have put our wisdom teeth out of business.

They’re not just pointless, though—they’re also problematic. Wisdom teeth are a “scar of human evolution,” according to Princeton University researcher Alan Mann. About 800,000 to 200,000 years ago, early humans’ brains started growing at a rapid pace—so much so that they ballooned to three times their original size. When that happened, it changed the shape of the braincase (the back part of the skull) and its position relative to the dental arcade (rows of teeth). The dental arcade shortened, and suddenly there was no longer enough room for third molars. And since the genes that determine the makeup of our teeth evolve separately from those that control brain development, humans were stuck dealing with the consequences of a crowded mouth, according to Live Science.

2. NATURE MAY EVENTUALLY SORT IT OUT, THOUGH.

On the bright side, scientists say evolution may eventually take care of the problem, meaning that people in the future would not develop wisdom teeth. It’s anyone’s guess as to when this will occur, though. “On the evolutionary scale, if I had to predict down the road—centuries probably—wisdom teeth are going to be one of the things that humans probably won’t have anymore,” Dr. William McCormick, assistant clinical professor at West Virginia University’s School of Dentistry, tells Mental Floss.

3. THE NUMBER OF WISDOM TEETH VARIES FROM PERSON TO PERSON ...

It’s possible that you have one, two, three, four, or none at all. Another possibility, although it’s rare, is to have more than four wisdom teeth, which are called supernumerary teeth. “In my career, I have seen two cases where patients have had fourth molars—or two sets of wisdom teeth,” McCormick says. (Comparatively, humans’ ancestors had quite the mouthful, with 12 wisdom teeth in total.)

According to McCormick, genetic factors like jaw size might determine the number of wisdom teeth that a person has. Your lineage may also have something to do with it. Practically no Aboriginal Tasmanians have third molars, but almost 100 percent of indigenous Mexicans have at least one wisdom tooth. African Americans and Asian Americans are also more likely than people of European descent to have fewer than four wisdom teeth. This variation can be attributed to a random genetic mutation that arose thousands of years ago, thereby preventing the formation of wisdom teeth. This mutation is more prevalent in certain populations.

4. ... AS DOES THE NUMBER OF ROOTS THAT EACH TOOTH HAS.

The roots are the part of the tooth that form first, and then push the bud (the part that's visible in your mouth) through your gums. While wisdom teeth typically have two or three roots, they can have more. McCormick says he personally removed his wife’s wisdom teeth in the ‘70s and was surprised to see that one of them had five roots. “It looked like a spider. It was not a pleasant extraction,” he says.

For that reason, if wisdom teeth need to be removed, it’s easier to do so before the roots start to take hold. “When the roots are totally formed, they’re anchored like a tree that’s been in your backyard for 100 years,” says Dr. Ron Good, an orthodontist in southwestern Pennsylvania who runs a family practice with his brother, Dr. Bob Good. On the other hand, surgeons want some roots to grab hold of, because removing a tiny tooth bud is “like extracting a marble,” Dr. Ron tells Mental Floss.

5. YOUR WISDOM TEETH CAN ERUPT AT ANY TIME.

According to Guinness World Records, the oldest person to ever grow a wisdom tooth was 94 years old. McCormick says there's a wide variation in ages when eruption occurs; he once had a 65-year-old patient with dentures whose wisdom tooth had started to erupt (poke through the gums). “They’re crazy little beasts. You never know what you’re going to see.”

Apparently, wisdom teeth have been acting erratically for thousands of years. Aristotle documented this phenomenon in his book The History of Animals: “Cases have been known in women upwards of 80 years old where at the very close of life the wisdom-teeth have come up, causing great pain in their coming; and cases have been known of the like phenomenon in men too.”

In most cases, though, wisdom teeth erupt when you’re in your late teens or early twenties.

6. THE FIRST IMPACTED TOOTH WAS RECORDED ABOUT 15,000 YEARS AGO.

When wisdom teeth don’t have enough room to grow normally, they get stuck in the jaw and fail to erupt. These are called impacted teeth. The oldest known case of an impacted tooth was found in the skeleton of a 25- to 35-year-old woman who died some 15,000 years ago. This case cast doubt on the theory that impacted teeth are a modern ailment, caused by recent changes in our dietary habits.

7. SOME PHYSICIANS SAY THAT IMPACTED WISDOM TEETH SHOULD BE SURGICALLY REMOVED ...

Many people get their wisdom teeth removed, even if there isn’t any pain or discernible problem aside from impacting. Known as prophylactic surgery, this preventative practice is common in the U.S., but in recent years there has been some debate as to whether it’s necessary. One popular theory holds that most people either have problems with their wisdom teeth or will at some point in the future. “It’s hard to get a percentage, but probably 75 to 80 percent of people do not meet the criteria of being able to successfully maintain their wisdom teeth,” Dr. Louis K. Rafetto, who headed a task force on wisdom teeth, told The New York Times in 2011.

About 3.5 million extraction surgeries are performed each year, and according to another estimate, that adds up to be 10 million individual wisdom teeth pulled annually. Dr. Ron and Dr. Bob, of Good Orthodontics, are both of the opinion that wisdom teeth are ticking time bombs. “In our mind, we feel that wisdom teeth, in general, are of no value and are only potential problems,” Dr. Bob says. He added that third molars can interfere with your bite and cause your teeth to wear down, and in some cases, can also cause cysts, tumors, nerve damage, periodontal disease (affecting the gums and other areas around the teeth) and TMJ disorders (affecting the jaw joint). Plus, if your teeth are too crowded and you aren’t able to brush and floss them normally, it can lead to additional issues, such as gum disease and cavities.

8. ... WHILE OTHERS SAY YOU SHOULD AVOID IT.

Dental practitioners in the UK put an end to routine wisdom tooth extractions in 1998, citing a study at the University of York that reportedly found no scientific evidence to support the practice, according to the The Miami Herald.

Opposition is building in the U.S., too. Retired dentist Dr. Jay Friedman told How Stuff Works that only about 12 percent of wisdom teeth eventually cause problems. He compared that rate to the 7 to 14 percent of people who experience appendicitis, yet appendixes aren’t removed until they become a medical issue. If this seems to contradict Raffeto's statistics, it’s because there isn’t a whole lot of concrete data on the subject, and much of it is conflicting—so it really comes down to the individual physician’s and patient's preferences. “Ask three dentists the same question, and you’re going to get four different answers,” McCormick says with a laugh.

Like Friedman, McCormick doesn't support wisdom tooth removal unless there’s an infection, abscess, or other problem. “You have to weigh the surgical risk with what you’re going to try to accomplish,” he says. Like any surgery, wisdom tooth extraction poses a risk, although more serious complications, like fractured jaws and death, are extremely rare. McCormick says some possible side effects include nerve damage, infection, and dry socket (an infection of the tooth socket).

Despite the differing opinions in the dental community, McCormick, Dr. Ron, and Dr. Bob agreed that there’s no prescriptive rule for wisdom tooth removal, and that each patient should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

9. THEY’RE CALLED LOVE TEETH IN KOREAN.

In English, the name wisdom tooth conveys the idea that third molars come in later than other teeth, at a time when you’re older and (hopefully) wiser. Other languages don’t follow the same convention. In Korean, for example, the poetic name for third molars translates to “love teeth,” because it's around this time (late teens and early 20s) that one typically experiences their first love. The Japanese language also has a creative word for it: oyashirazu, or “unknown to parents,” since most people have already moved away from home by the time their wisdom teeth come in.

10. THEY’RE USED IN STEM CELL RESEARCH.

It turns out wisdom teeth aren't all bad. Although some of the research is still in the experimental phase, scientists are studying dental stem cells—which were discovered in 2003—to see if they can potentially be used to repair and regenerate tissue.

One study on mice, at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, found that stem cells taken from wisdom teeth could someday be used to repair corneas that have been scarred by infection or injury. Any clinical applications for humans would require more research, though.

"There are studies with dental pulp cells being used to treat neurological disorders and problems in the eye and other things,” Dr. Pamela Robey, of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, told CNN. “The problem is, these studies have really not been that rigorous ... the science needs a lot more work.”

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