Latest Issue of Science News

4/18 Cover

Growth Curve

The inexact science of raising kids

Laura Sanders

Growth Curve

Growth Curve

In babies, turning down inflammation soothes the hurt

baby crying

PAINLESS This baby probably isn't crying because of nerve pain. New research reveals that infants and children don't feel nerve pain because their immune systems tamp down inflammation.

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Laura Sanders is away on maternity leave.

Babies have it so easy.

I came to that conclusion after visiting Laura’s 4-month-old daughter, Baby Boo (she was born close enough to Halloween that I feel justified in using the nickname). Boo is the little sister of Baby V, who you’ve read about in this blog, and she’s a happy baby. And why wouldn’t she be? She has people seeing to her every need, playing silly games and making faces at her to keep her amused. I could do without the faces, but otherwise Boo has a pretty sweet deal.

My envy of Baby Boo and other babies rose to new heights when I came across a study in the Journal of Neuroscience that explains why babies and young children don’t feel nerve pain.

Researchers had already discovered that kids who haven’t reached puberty don’t get nerve ailments such as sciatica or phantom limb pain. Adults who lose a limb or slip a disc in their spine may feel this sort of pain right away. But infants and prepubescent children who have a limb amputated because of an accident or disease don’t develop phantom pain until years later.

In the new study, researchers used rats and mice to learn how youngsters fend off nerve pain. Nerve injury in adolescent and adult rodents caused inflammation and pain when the animals had to bear weight on the injured side or were exposed to heat or cold. But something else happened in infant mice: Their immune systems produced anti-inflammatory chemicals when nerves were injured, Rebecca McKelvey and Maria Fitzgerald of University College London and collaborators discovered.

Blocking these chemicals or injecting others that trigger inflammation caused baby mice to feel nerve pain, the team found. That finding suggests that babies’ pain sensors work just fine; it’s stopping the inflammation that normally keeps them from feeling pain. As the babies grew into adolescents, the inflammation-causing chemicals gradually overwhelmed the anti-inflammatory molecules that kept nerve pain at bay. Unfortunately, injecting anti-inflammatories into adult mice didn’t lessen their discomfort.

The researchers speculate that both mouse and human infants make anti-inflammatory chemicals so their bodies won’t reject friendly microbes. Reduced inflammation may also ease brain development by allowing immune cells in the brain to strip away damaged cells and snip dysfunctional connections between nerves. No nerve pain is just a side benefit.

I’ve been plagued with nerve pain similar to sciatica for a year now, experiencing pain that ranges from nuisance to excruciating. This study seems to suggest that tipping the immune response toward the anti-inflammatory side may eliminate nerve pain in adults like me. But that type of therapy is a long way off. I will just have to be content to know that Baby Boo won’t have to deal with this sort of discomfort for many years to come (and hopefully never). Of course, that won’t stop me coveting her anti-inflammatory superpowers.

Human Development,, Neuroscience

A little tablet time probably won’t fry a toddler’s brain

By Helen Thompson 4:00pm, February 26, 2015
Good or bad, the effects tablet and smartphone use among toddlers demand more research.
Health,, Human Development

Even when correct, diagnoses can harm kids

By Lila Guterman 11:50am, January 30, 2015
Overdiagnosis is well documented in adults but is often overlooked in children and can lead to unnecessary treatments.
Human Development,, Neuroscience

What’s in a nap? For babies, it may make long-lasting memories

By Ashley Yeager 5:33pm, January 14, 2015
Taking naps after learning seems to help babies less than a year old make memories and keep them, for about a day anyway.
Human Development,, Neuroscience

A bilingual brain is prepped for more than a second language

By Lisa Seachrist Chiu 10:00am, December 31, 2014
Bilingual and multilingual people make efficient decisions on word choices, neural exercise that may protect the aging brain.
Mental Health,, Science & Society

For kids, news coverage can bring distant tragedy home

By Laura Beil 2:30pm, December 1, 2014
Media coverage of disasters and other major events can have an emotional effect on kids. Experts suggest that parents limit news exposure and discuss tough topics.
Human Development,, Mental Health

The kids will be all right

By Laura Sanders 7:25pm, November 19, 2014
Children are generally as resilient as adults when it comes to acute trauma, and studies suggest that a little stress and exercise might help kids cope with disasters.
Neuroscience,, Human Development

Moms are more likely than dads to chat with newborns

By Laura Sanders 7:00am, November 3, 2014
Even when fathers are around, mothers tend to talk to their babies more and respond to infants’ vocalizations.
Health,, Microbes

There’s no need to panic about enterovirus

By Laura Sanders 9:00am, October 22, 2014
The enterovirus behind this year’s outbreak, EV-D68, has been around for decades and generally causes mild symptoms.
Human Development

A timeline of a baby’s first hour

By Laura Sanders 9:55am, October 9, 2014
A study carefully documents newborns’ instinctual behaviors in the first hour outside the womb, observations that paint a picture of what babies might need in the moments after birth.
Health,, Human Development

Pregnant women’s immune systems overreact to the flu

By Laura Sanders 1:21pm, October 3, 2014
A new study offers an exception to the assumption that a pregnant woman’s immune system fades to keep from attacking the growing fetus.
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