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The Link Between the Infant’s Heart and Brain

The human body obviously still has a lot of growing to do even after it leaves the mother’s womb. Evolutionary biologists have long-explained how this is actually one of the key trademarks of the human species. Unlike most species, human infants are incredibly vulnerable for months after being born, requiring around-the-clock care. It takes years for human children to be able to live on their own, unlike others in the animal kingdom who are born mostly intact. Ultimately, this is what allows humans to develop such complex systems–their growth continues for a long time.

But none of that should undermine the critical nature of proper development in the womb.

More and more doctors are learning about the connection between how one develops as a fetus and the effect on growth and development in later years. For example, a study published last month in Neurology took a look at the connection between heart defects in infants and their later brain development.

Organ-Growth Intertwined
While birth defects obviously have an impact on later development, it was not necessarily clear if a defect in one area, like the heart, would affect growth in others, like the brain. But the complexity and connectivity of very different parts of the body seem to be clear. Essentially, this study identified how children with congenital heart defects have far higher rates of brain injury and brain development problems. The research, for the first time, established the correlation between the two. Importantly, we do not yet understand the causation element, or exactly why/how the heart problems affect brain growth.

The study itself involved MRI scans of 120 newborns with heart defects. Those scans were conducted before and after those infants had surgery to correct their heart problems. The results showed that there were clear pre-surgery brain injury problems. But the problems seemed to evaporate following surgery.

This is obviously good news, as it reinforces the value of proper surgical care. Ultimately, however, scientists hope to learn more about this connection in hopes of preventing the problem and fixing it before surgery is even needed. One researcher explained, “The ultimate step will be to develop strategies to promote optimal brain development in utero. This includes ways to help the brain mature while still in the uterus, as well as ensuring optimal brain blood flow after birth. MRI now gives us a window on the developing brain in babies with heart defects,”

Significance
One neurologist explained that the findings in this study are particularly significant, because heart problems are some of the most common defects in infants, affecting upwards of one out of every one hundred newborns each year.

Overall, this latest research project is even more validation of the already-known fact that development in the womb and what happens during childbirth itself can impact virtually every facet of one’s life and growth. As if more reason was needed, it reinforces the demand that all those involved with medical care in birth do everything they can to minimize complications and prevent harm.

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