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

The debate over spanking is short on science, high on emotion

By Laura Sanders 5:08pm, September 24, 2014
Spanking to discipline a child sparks heated debate that reflects deep divides in our society. Studies generally show negative effects of spanking, but there are many caveats.
Human Development

Not all the ‘baby friendly’ rules are rooted in science

By Laura Sanders 11:45am, September 19, 2014
The Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative has a noble goal of encouraging breastfeeding, but some of its recommendations may be based on shaky science.
Human Development

The (almost non-existent) science of potty training

By Laura Sanders 1:47pm, September 10, 2014
When it comes to toilet training your child, science will offer you almost no help whatsoever.
Neuroscience,, Human Development

A hungry brain slurps up a kid’s energy

By Laura Sanders 12:00pm, September 3, 2014
Compared with other animals, human children take their time growing up. A new study suggests that’s because kids’ brains burn a lot of energy, perhaps diverting resources from their growing bodies.
Neuroscience,, Human Development

Babies may be good at remembering, and forgetting

By Laura Sanders 7:33pm, August 28, 2014
Studies in kids suggest that young children can form memories but can’t recall them later, offering new clues to how memory-storing systems form in young brains.
Health,, Human Development

Study puts numbers to post-baby sleepiness

By Laura Sanders 12:00pm, August 20, 2014
Many moms aren’t getting good sleep months after giving birth, reports a new study and every mother ever.

Data deluge feeds paranoia parenting

By Laura Sanders 8:00am, August 14, 2014
There are several gadgets and devices you can buy that will feed you reams of data about your baby. But it’s not always clear how that data translate into useful information.
Neuroscience,, Development

Rat moms’ behavior reflected in their babies’ brains

By Laura Sanders 5:02pm, August 8, 2014
Grooming, nursing and other maternal behaviors cause brain signal changes in offspring, a study in rats finds.

Seven facts and a mystery about hand, foot and mouth disease

By Laura Sanders 2:40pm, August 1, 2014
Hand, foot and mouth disease is a viral illness that most kids get before age 5. Several different viruses cause the condition, which causes blisters and fevers.
Neuroscience,, Health

Babies’ brains practice words long before they can speak

By Laura Sanders 11:55am, July 23, 2014
When listening to speech, babies’ brains are active in motor areas required for moving the mouth and tongue in ways that produce words.
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