An article at PregnancyandBaby.com describes a high-tech silicon pacifier developed by the University of Kansas to train premature babies to suck properly. Some of the ideas from the university’s press release about the device:
Most potential brain injuries in newborns go undetected until developmental problems begin to surface, sometime between the child’s first and second birthdays.
By then, the problem may be deeply rooted in the child’s nervous system, making it difficult to correct through conventional behavioral therapies.
A team of researchers at KU led by Steven Barlow, chair of speech, language and hearing and director of Communication Neuroscience Laboratories, in collaboration with Don Finan at the University of Colorado, has developed the Actifier — a high-tech pacifier that helps improve a newborn baby’s ability to perform essential motor skills, such as sucking in relation to swallowing and breathing.
Barlow, who also is a professor of neuroscience and human biology, describes the Actifier as a “cribside laboratory.” The instrument consists of a pacifier attached to a frame about the size of an infant’s shoebox. The wiring in the frame connects to a high-speed computer that gives real-time analysis of the baby’s oral motor skills.
After analyzing the baby’s mouth and surrounding facial muscles, the eight tiny electrodes on the pacifier’s shield sample electrical activity from key muscles surrounding the mouth in response to gentle stimulation.
“Those muscles have direct connections to the brain stem, which has connections to higher structures, like the cerebral hemisphere,” Barlow said.
The stimulation of these facial muscles occurs in the form of an extremely brief and light tap from one of the motors integrated into the pacifier shield.
This important stimulation jump-starts the baby’s ability to fire his or her own neurons, opening damaged or poorly developed pathways in the baby’s brain that trigger functions such as sucking and swallowing. The entire process lasts about 90 seconds.
“This will in turn cause populations or sub-populations of neurons in the developing nervous system to fire together,” Barlow said. “We know that the neurons that fire together, wire together.”
If these neurons don’t fire together, it can cause serious long-term problems for the child in terms of organizing and mapping his or her perceptual world, ranging from respiratory complications to learning and speech and language disorders, he said.
A short movie and additional info are available here…