Any Baby Can Read?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009 at Tuesday, December 08, 2009
Recently, a friend from high school generously gave me the intro DVD for "Any Baby Can Read". I must confess that I am really excited to see what it is about. And she feels that it was beneficial. But the neuroscientist in me wonders if, well, any baby can, in fact, read? If I haven't already mentioned it, I highly, highly recommend "What's Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life", by Lise Eliot. Even if you aren't well versed in science jargon, this book is really easy, informative and well researched. The book gives a great overview of the stages of brain development of the visual, auditory, motor and language systems, just to name a few. And after reading this book, I realize that there are stages that babies learn, and there is really no way past those stages. For example, although there is an age range for babies to begin crawling, it is really based on how fast that portion of their motor system develops. Nothing you do can really make them crawl faster. So it is interesting that there is a program which claims it can teach a baby to read, well before most kidlets become "readers".

First let me start by explaining what "Any Baby Can Read" contends their product can do:
"A baby’s brain thrives on stimulation and develops at a phenomenal pace…nearly 90% during the first five years of life! The best and easiest time to learn a language is during the infant and toddler years, when the brain is creating thousands of synapses every second – allowing a child to learn both the written word and spoken word simultaneously, and with much more ease.

Dr. Titzer says the current practice of starting to teach reading skills in school is too late and children benefit greatly from getting a much earlier start since a child basically has only one natural window for learning language -- from about birth to about age four. During this period it is easier for a child to learn any type of language including spoken, receptive, foreign and written language. The earlier the child is taught to read the better they will read and the more likely they will enjoy it.

Studies prove that the earlier a child learns to read, the better they perform in school and later in life. Early readers have more self-esteem and are more likely to stay in school. Meanwhile, a national panel of reading specialists and educators determined that most of the nation’s reading problems could be eliminated if children began reading earlier."

Sounds good, eh? But let us take a look at these claims.

They are correct that when a baby is born, he/she has all of the neurons (cells in the central nervous system) in place, however, synapses (parts of the neuron that communicate to other neurons) are overproduced, called synaptogenesis. The reason for synaptogenesis is that experiences drive changes in the brain. An infants/toddlers brain is like a blank canvas (if you will) and is completely open to new experiences (words, colors, sounds, etc). As the infant/toddler experience their world, their language, their environment, the synapses that are not needed prune back. However, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that kids can learn language and reading simultaneoulsy just because synaptogenesis is occurring.

The next claim that "starting to teach reading skills in school is too late and children benefit greatly from getting a much earlier start since a child basically has only one natural window for learning language" really has no basis. It is true that there is a sensitive developmental window for language (not reading) development. If a child is deprived of language during this period, no matter what you do later, that child will never acquire language. But, reading is not like that. There is no "sensitive" window for reading. If there was, illiterate adults would not be able to learn to read, and they clearly can. I understand that they are saying that these kiddos learn best when they pair language and reading, but this argument really doesn't show that.

This claim really gets me going! They claim that "Studies prove that the earlier a child learns to read, the better they perform in school and later in life". Really? And where exactly are your citations for these studies? Most studies don't show findings so clear, cut and dry. There are a lot of variables to consider when it comes to reading and the effects on later school performance. Do these early readers come from smarter, better educated parents? Do they have a more stable, nurturing environment? Have they been read to from very early in infancy? Do their parents read frequently? Genetics? Environment? You get the picture.

In all honesty, I think what gets me a bit worked up about these products is they play into that natural, and ever-present voice we all have as parents. You know, the one that contanstanly makes you wonder if you are doing all that you can for your kidlet. We all want to have the brightest, smartest, etc. kids because that means they will go on to have productive lives and be contributors to society. And if "Any Baby Can Read" doesn't do what it claims, but at the end of the day encourages quality time spent between parent and child, then to me, that is what it is all about. But I think you can do that for free ;)

So all in all I will give it a try. And if Conner does well, that is great. But I also think that the claims they make are lacking scientific proof (at best) and conflates language acquisition with reading.

Conner's 9 month old check-up

Monday, October 26, 2009 at Monday, October 26, 2009
Today Conner had his 9-month wellness check-up. First, I can't believe he is already 9 months old! Time has flown (well at times it doesn't feel that way). So there we were, Conner, Mommy and Dr. Aggie (see previous post to know why we refer to him as Dr. Aggie :D). Now Dr. Aggie is incredibly nice. He answers my weird off-the-wall questions (and I can definitely bring the weird). But when he starts to question me about Conner's developmental milestones I feel...well for those of you that know me well, I am quite a competitive person. In fact, I have been referred to as "Monica" from Friends (despite the fact that I am nothing like her!). Ahem. Moving along, so he starts to ask if Conner is doing this, that and the other. And I find that for most of the questions my answer is "um, no, not yet". So now I feel like a loser. It must be my fault that Conner isn't pulling himself up to stand using the furniture. No, no, no, Mommy or Daddy have to stand him up, then he can hold himself up using the coffee table. Or that he isn't crawling, cruising, walking, riding a bike, composing music to make Mozart jealous (deep breath!). But I left there thinking that not all babies develop at the same pace and I am not a big ass loser (well at least not in this realm). But I met a good friend for a baby date at Austin's Children's Museum. They have "baby bloomer" day and OMG it was a blast! So there we are, cute babies and all, and over crawls this really beautiful little girl. So the mom and I start talking and when she informs me that her daughter is Conner's age that same feeling of loserhood comes back. Now I know not to compare babies...but damnit I can't help myself! Of course as soon as they started the sing-along and Conner looked at me with this "Mommy I love you and thank you for bringing me here" look (yes people...that was what he was thinking!)...all those feelings of loser-hood went away. Instead I just felt so blessed that I have a healthy little boy who will develop all of these milestones when he is good and ready!

So Moms...did you feel the competitive streak? Did you overcome it?

Learn! Baby! Learn!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at Wednesday, October 07, 2009
My brilliant father-in-law, Rich, sent me a fabulous e-mail asking if there were any books about what babies need to be taught on a month by month, then year by year basis. I have read "What's Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life" by Lise Eliot (and I highly highly recommend this book, even if you are not of a science persuasion). But this aforementioned book does not really go into great depths about what to teach an infant/toddler, based on what they can developmentally grasp. Instead Dr. Eliot simply, but accurately explains how the brain develops. However, I would love to know what are the best age appropriate toys/activities. I know that anyone can walk into Target and buy a toy based on age. However, I am not convinced that this is necessary. Some of the toys Conner has found to be entertaining (and I am sure educational) have been items from around the house (i.e. that our wooden cooking spoon, when banged against a tupperware container, makes a noise).

I have found a bunch of websites that basically just say talking and reading to your baby is the best thing to do. Does anyone know of a book that has great suggestions for how to stimulate and encourage age appropriate development? Any input would be very much appreciated.

Also, Conner has become a bit bored with his current selection of toys and we need to invest in more. Any suggestions for toys/activities we can buy that an almost 9 month old would love?

And if there are no books...hmm...I have always wanted to write a book...but must must must finish grad school first!

Conner Update

Saturday, October 3, 2009 at Saturday, October 03, 2009
Hi everyone!
Well I thought I would give a bit of an update on Conner. Ladies and gentlemen...(drum roll please)...we have a tooth! And boy oh boy is he not having any fun. Of course I can't blame him. If I had a hard object made up of calcium and phosphorus (and other mineral salts) ramming its way out of my gums, I don't think I would be too hot to trot either. But he is handling it like a little trooper. He has also started "backward" crawling. From what I gather, this precedes crawling forward. He also seems to be very very aware of his environment. He has always been a very curious, observant baby, but now it is as if he is going through a developmental stage and he is becoming more cognitively enhanced. So what that last sentence really means is...his sleeping is interrupted and WE ARE TIRED! But this is just an awesome journey and I love watching him learn and absorb the world!

My next blog entry will be more in line with neuronal/cognitive development. I am going to do an entry on spanking. So tune in...

I like ta move it, move it, he likes ta...MOVE IT!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Ok so I really don't have much to offer on this post about any specific research topic. But I was pondering, which I do often, about Conner's development. He is about to turn 8 months old and the little cutie IS NOT CRAWLING YET! And yes, I know, I know...not every baby crawls, and they do it at all different ages. So I guess this got me thinking about other aspects of his development and I thought I would pose some questions for other Mommies out there (or Grandmas, people with an opinion, hell cats and dogs if you please).

1) What age did your baby begin to crawl? Did you do "tummy time" and if so, did they seem to get cranky doing tummy time after a while?

2) When did your baby get teeth? Which teeth came in first? Were there any signs of teething?

3) When was the first word said?

4) Was your baby smaller/cubbier than normal? Did anyone have a smaller baby that has turned into a golly-green-giant of a kid?

Ok if I have missed anything else important that deserves ratiocination, please do tell.

And by the way...babies in blue jeans.EFFING.CUTE.

Hope everyone is doing well and has a fabulous day! Oh and if you could comment here on the blog that would be helpful. Not everyone has a Facebook account and, dear me, I would not want anyone to miss out on all the special little nuggets of input :D

And Mommy…talk BABY to me!

Monday, August 31, 2009 at Monday, August 31, 2009
Anyone that has ever seen a woman interact with a baby can attest to one fact, one certainty in life, if you will…women baby talk to babies. Period. I don’t know what it is, but something just makes us want to raise the pitch of our voice and sound like our tongue was just stuck to the icy flagpole outside. Oh and in case you didn’t catch the title, it is taken from Poison’s “Talk Dirty To Me” song…and yes, you are welcome for it now being stuck in your head! And if you are too young to know who Poison is consider yourself lucky.

But why-oh-why do we talk to babies like that? I mean, babies learn language from those that speak to them and will talking like a baby to your baby impair their language development?

Many, many studies have shown that babies prefer baby talk, aka motherese, parentese or infant-directed talk, to normal plain old adult talk. Baby talk not only has a higher pitch, it also is typically more rhythmic, slower, shorter and more exaggerated than adult talk. Baby talk has also been shown to facilitate the bond between the infant and caregiver and assist in language development and communication between the adult and the baby. So clearly it has been shown to be beneficial.

In 2007, an article published in Brain and Cognition looked at what is going on when an infant hears “baby talk”. The researchers used Electroencephalography (EEG) (which is just a fancy schmancy way of recording electrical activity of the brain when its neurons are firing) and they looked at heart rate using 39, 9-month old infants while they listened to baby talk. The baby talk differed in which emotion it conveyed, i.e. love, surprise, fear, etc. They found that the greatest brain activity was in the frontal lobe (the executive, decision maker, problem-solver) and the highest EEG activity was associated with fear, then love/comfort, and so on. Despite the affect presented (i.e. fear, comfort) all of the infants’ heart rate decelerated. Another interesting finding is that babies who are reported as more temperamental showed greater right frontal lobe activation in response to baby talk expressing fear. Previous research has shown that at rest, babies that exhibit greater fear responses to novel stimuli have greater activity in their right frontal lobe at rest compared to infants that do not exhibit these fearful responses.

There is quite a bit of research that shows infants have greater at rest right frontal lobe activity and this will influence the personality of the infant, and into adulthood. This article is good at showing that the content of the talk is also important. If the affect is fear, surprise, or other “negative” emotions, it will affect activity in the frontal lobe differently than affect of comfort, love, etc.

Of course now comes the chicken and the egg aspect. Are fearful, more anxious babies that way because of their brain morphology? Or do their parents create the brain to wire in a way that makes them more anxious? Based on this article, even if you are baby talking, if you are talking in an affect of fear the baby is able to discern that. Or does brain wiring of this nature occur in utero (of course it does!). If you are an overly anxious person, or have encountered a high stress, or fearful situation, your fetus is sure to respond accordingly.

Any thoughts?

Santesso DL, Schmidt LA, Trainor LJ. Frontal brain electrical activity (EEG) and heart rate in response to affective infant-directed (ID) speech in 9-month-old infants. Brain Cogn. 2007 Oct;65(1):14-21. Epub 2007 Jul 30.

Mommy Needs Prozac

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at Wednesday, August 19, 2009
With all of the excitement and exhaustion (for the parents) of a new baby, one concern is all too often overlooked…maternal depression. Women are raised to believe that having a child is the most joyous occasion. Yes you are tired. But you are also so elated at this tiny little bundle of joy and life couldn’t be better, right? Well, maybe. I will admit that when I was pregnant there was a part of me that was a bit concerned that since I had the propensity for depression (family history, and once needing medication for it myself) I would be a fine candidate for post partum depression. Or that I would even encounter prenatal depression. My son is 7 months old and (so far) I have not experienced true post partum depression. But I know many women that have and I think it is just now being truly talked about and assessed.

Honestly I really thank Brooke Shields for bringing this issue to light (and on a certain level Tom Cruise and his “vitamins and exercise can take care of depression” rant…anyone else longing for the days of Top Gun?). She was open and honest about her experience. But what does it mean to have post partum depression? We know Mom isn’t herself, it affects the way she interacts with her baby, husband, family, job, everyday activities…but what about the effects on the kid(s)? A review paper published in the Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review (2006) did a fabulous job of taking a lot of research and highlighting some of the deleterious consequences of untreated maternal depression.

Here are some interesting statistics:
1. During adulthood, women are almost twice as likely as men to have depression, and
onset is usually in the mid-20’s (childrearing years)
2. Approximately 20% of pregnant women experience depression (and tend to seek less
prenatal care)
3. Postpartum depression affects 5-25% of women

So how does prenatal depression/stress a fetus? Glad you asked. Many studies have shown that prenatal depression/stress undermines good prenatal care. These women do not seek basic prenatal check-ups, engage in more alcohol and drug abuse, gain less weight, smoke cigarettes more, and feel more stressed. The increase in feelings of stress and depression in turn affect the quality of cortisol (the primary human stress hormone) release from the mother. Depression and stress both increase the release of cortisol. Elevated levels of maternal cortisol affect the growing fetus by: altering the fetus’ development of the HPA axis (makes the HPA axis more responsive to stress), and higher rates of premature labor and slower growth of the fetus. Prolonged or elevated HPA axis activation has been shown to interfere with learning and memory in children.

But what if there is postpartum depression? According to recent research, postpartum depression may interfere with the cognitive and language development of infants. Infants of depressed mothers have deficits in vagal tone measures (vagus nerve activates facial expressions, vocalization and maintains slower heart rates). These infants vocalize less and show muted facial expressions which could interfere with the depressed mothers’ ability to interpret the needs of the infant. Maternal depression also appears to alter brain activity in the frontal lobes. Using electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings, infants and toddlers of depressed mothers have decreased activation in left frontal brain activation and more right frontal activation. Activation in the left frontal region is associated with positive emotions, whereas right frontal activation is associated with negative emotions. The negative emotional responses would thus interfere with the infants’ ability and motivation to process and interpret external stimuli (i.e. learning). As a side note, most women do experience postpartum blues (I know I did) but this does not appear to interfere with the development of the child, and does not last as long.

Honestly this article is HUGE with vast amounts of information. I have definitely not done justice to how much maternal depression can interfere with the social, emotional, and cognitive development of infants. What is most important is not IF a mother is experiencing depression, but HOW will she, her family and her community respond. No one, especially a pregnant woman or one that just gave birth, should feel isolated and embarrassed for their depression. A mothers’ ability to care for her kids is the most important part of this equation. Therefore, if medication aids in allowing the mother to be more interactive and respond better to her kids’ needs, which in turn allow for the child to develop in a more enriched environment, I am all for it. However, if a woman can find other methods to deal with her depression I think that is great too! Medication doesn't have to be the only solution. But if it works, go for it.

Of course, it would be interesting to see what role Dad plays in this. If Dad compensates for Mom’s lack of interaction, will it offset some of these negative outcomes? What if the baby attends daycare? Will the interaction from the caregivers be enough?

Any other thoughts?

Sohr-Preston SL, Scaramella LV. Implications of timing of maternal depressive symptoms for early cognitive and language development. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. 2006 Mar;9(1):65-83. Review.

If You’re a Picky Eater and Ya Know it, Clap Your Hands!

Monday, July 27, 2009 at Monday, July 27, 2009
Since Conner is only 6 months old, and seems to love every vegetable and fruit we give him, I feel very fortunate. I think at some point everyone has encountered (or is) a picky eater. Now, I think we all have one or two veggies/fruit or types of cuisines that we do not care for. But you know what I am talking about. I am talking about actually refusing to eat certain things. I have a close friend and her daughter will actually gag up most veggies. Collin used to work with a woman that made 5, yes FIVE different dinners every night because everyone wanted something different. I will admit that I have always thought that most of the food kids/people don’t like has almost everything to do with the parents’ attitude and behavior (and whether they knew how to cook the food item). For example, I happen to love broccoli. However, if you over cook broccoli, it tastes like ARSE! If Mom and Dad don’t eat or like fruits/veggies/ different cuisines, how on Earth are their kids supposed to like them? Boy I have been proven WRONG! Wrong. Wrong. Now, I do think that some peeps just turn their noses up at things because they sound weird, or they think they won’t like an item. But recent research has illuminated why some people really don’t like eating certain foods. And guess what…IT IS GENETIC! Who would have thunk?

So here’s how it goes. A study by Dr. Lucy Cooke, dept. of epidemiology and public health at University College London, was recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Her study investigated almost 5400 twins to determine why kidlets have certain food aversions and/or neophobia (fear of trying new things). What her research suggests is that dislike for new or certain foods is inherited! Dr. Cooke estimates that food aversion is about 80% genetic, 20% environmental.

Another recent study, headed by Dr. Paul Breslin, contends that there is an evolutionary explanation for our dislike of certain foods, i.e. our ability to taste bitter foods was a defense mechanism to ensure we did not consume toxic foods. According to Dr. Breslin "the sense of taste enables us to detect bitter toxins within foods, and genetically-based differences in our bitter taste receptors affect how we each perceive foods containing a particular set of toxins". His research identified taste receptors sensitive to Glucosinolate-containing vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, turnips, kale, etc. His study investigated how adults respond to these veggies. A similar study investigated how kids respond. Both found that those with the more sensitive form of the Glucosinolate taste receptors on the tongue show a definite dislike for the aforementioned veggies. Those without the sensitive form of the Glucosinolate taste receptors don’t seem to taste the bitterness of the veggies.

So how is this genetic? Recently Nova Science Now (yes I am that dorky) aired a report on this very topic. On our chromosomes contain our genes. If Mom and Dad have the gene to encode this bitter taste receptor, YOU NO LIKEY BROCCOLI! If you got a sensitive one from Mom, but non-sensitive one from Dad, you may not completely like the taste, but you aren’t completely appalled by it, and could grow to like the bitter taste. And if neither Mom or Dad have the gene, you are not sensitive to bitter and should be able to eat whatever veggies your Mom puts in front of you!

For a fabulous video (well fabulous if you are a BIG ASS DORK LIKE ME) go here:

Now this is not meant to completely rule out the environment. If you are a picky eater, it is likely your kids will be too. If you are cooking these poor, innocent little veggies to oblivion (buy a cookbook already!) then they won’t taste good. I should also note that from what I have read, infants typically aren’t as picky as toddlers. So Conner may eat well now, but as he gets older we may see more of Mr. Picky Pants (but Collin and I both love almost every fruit and veggie out there so I think he will too).

In addition, the brain senses how something tastes not only from our taste receptors, but also from how food looks and smells. So if you try a different cooking method, and keep things fresh and colorful, perhaps this will aid in our preference?

It will be interesting to see if other dislikes (i.e. fish, curry) are genetically based too.

Lucy J Cooke, Claire MA Haworth and Jane Wardle. Genetic and environmental influences on children's food neophobia. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 86, No. 2, 428-433, August 2007.

Mari A. Sandella and Paul A.S. Breslin. Variability in a taste-receptor gene determines whether we taste toxins in food. Current Biology. Volume 16, Issue 18, 19 September 2006, Pages R792-R794.

Kendra I Bell and Beverly J Tepper. Short-term vegetable intake by young children classified by 6-n-propylthoiuracil bitter-taste phenotype. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 84, No. 1, 245-251, July 2006.

Conner's 6 month check-up

Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Today we took our little trooper to see his doctor. You know, the cute pediatrician that Collin has to insult by calling him an Aggie :D I also must mention that I have no problem whatsoever with our Dr. Aggie because he told me that Conner's eyes will probably stay blue because his Mommy has "beautiful blue eyes". Sigh. Ok, just kidding, he is a good doctor but he is no Collin O'Bryant! Anywho, Conner weighs 14 lbs 8 oz and is now 25 inches long. Dr. Aggie said he looks really healthy. But there are a few things Mom and Dad need to work on. Apparently we should have been feeding him way more than we have. I promise we are not trying to make Conner look like a little starving munchkin. I just didn't realize he needed so much cereal. And we need to up our frequency to 3X, not 2X a day. So he is eating his veggies (spinach, carrot, sweet potatoes, yellow squash, zucchini, butternut squash and peas) and applesauce quite well. Now we just need more rice cereal and to feed him more! We also have to have him practice sitting up more on his own. We use a boppy pillow, but I got the sense that the doctor thinks we should have him sit sans boppy pillow. Other than that, his motor skills are developing quite well. He is now able to take his pacifier in and out of his mouth, take off his sunglasses, grasp toys (and bang himself over and over on the head...oy vey!) He did get his immunization shots, cried, then snuggled me, which I can't help but admit melts my heart. Collin was there comforting him while he got the shots. And he was our little trooper. And he is ridiculously cute! So there it is, Conner's update.

Hooray for Boobs!

Monday, July 20, 2009 at Monday, July 20, 2009
Since the 1930’s it has been accepted that breast milk is better than formula. Recently there has been an increased focus on the cognitive development of breast fed versus formula fed infants. Now I must start off by saying that this post is not meant to insult any woman that uses formula. Breastfeeding is my personal choice, but for various reasons is not feasible for everyone. I would also like to mention a huge caveat with this type of research…you cannot possibly account for all of the influences that determine IQ and cognitive development. However, the paper I am presenting did a fabulous job of taking 20 studies of breast fed and formula fed infants, tested on a variety of cognitive tasks, over an extended period of time, and has developed a convincing argument for why breast milk is better than formula for cognitive development.

Here are the benefits presented for breast fed infants:
1) ~ 3 points higher on IQ tests compared to formula fed
2) better academic achievement
3) better job performance (later in age)
4) lower delinquency rates
5) better performance on visual acuity tests
6) may have earlier acquisition of motor skills
7) fewer emotional/behavioral problems
8) fewer minor neurological problems later in life

The greatest beneficiaries of breast milk appear to be low birth weight babies. Normal birth weight babies score ~3 points higher on IQ tests compared to formula fed babies. Low birth weight babies scored 5.16 points higher.

So why all of the improvements for boob fed babies? Well, the basic credence accepted in this research is that breast milk contains 2 very important characters: arachadonic acid, aka omega-6 (AA) and decosahexanoic acid, aka omega-3 (DHA). DHA and AA are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPs). “DHA is essential for retinal and nervous system development. AA is necessary for growth and ecosanoid synthesis (regulators of homeostasis and response to injury). Both LCPs are important constituents of neuronal membranes and blood vessels in the brain” (

So now that companies are now adding DHA/AA to formula (and pretty much everything else in baby food), it will be interesting to see if this offsets the benefit of boobs! The truth is, when it comes to most essential oils, fatty acids, proteins, vitamins, etc. the best place to get what you need is from the food itself. Vitamins will never give you the same benefit of a well balance, healthy meal. But now that they are adding DHA/AA to so many products, like milk, and to infant food products, maybe formula fed babies will reap the benefits?

Breast-feeding and cognitive development: a meta-analysis.Anderson JW, Johnstone BM, Remley DT. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Oct;70(4):525-35

Soybeans and the Magical World of Gayness

Thursday, July 2, 2009 at Thursday, July 02, 2009
I have been thinking about what tone I would like to set for this particular blog entry. Should I be witty, sarcastic, humorous, serious, dogmatic…you get the idea. Those that know me would not call me a delicate flower. I am an opinionated person. I used to hate that word because it seemed to have a negative connotation. But now that I am in my 30’s I realize that it is so not a bad thing. Although I have my opinions, I respect and encourage a diversity of thoughts, beliefs, viewpoints, etc. Life would be utterly boring if everyone thought like me. All that I ask is that you put some reality, research, FACTS and good consideration behind your convictions. I also believe that sometimes your beliefs can contradict each other. I am, by nature, an over-analytical scientist. I love the scientific process of forming a hypothesis, testing it, and presenting your findings. So I really believe in the “if I can see it, prove it, I will believe in it” ideology. But, I believe in God. I can’t prove there is a God, but I believe it and I am willing to go toe to toe with anyone who belittles me for believing in God. So…what the hell did this little nugget of “what does Amber believe” (not that you asked) have to do with Neuroscience, child development, etc…well I am getting there :) I recently was having a conversation with my fabulous mother-in-law about some research suggesting that infant soy formula correlates with homosexuality. So going back to my preface, I would like to say that while I navigate you through this topic, the tone will be a complex variety, total “Amber” style. First, if you honestly believe that homosexuality is a choice, you might as well stop reading this blog entry. And in your spare time, I challenge you to find me actual SCIENTIFIC proof that it is a choice. And if you do, I promise to wear a hula skirt and do a Hawaiian dance while singing “It’s a Small World After All”.

There are 2 reasons the “infant soy formula correlates to homosexuality” gets my feathers all ruffled. First, the “articles” (and I use that term extremely loosely) just say “researchers say” without EVER giving actual citations to their, um, ahem, claims. Second, I get quite surly when people misrepresent science. We see it all of the time. Vitamin D does this, then does that, then they find actually does nothing, then can cause harm. The truth is science is pretty complex. Findings are usually not 100% absolute and straightforward. There are always exceptions. But one main point I must stress here, as I have in other entries, is this: CORRELATION DOES NOT MEAN CAUSATION!

Now for the fun to begin…

Here is some basic Neuroscience on sexual differentiation (oversimplified). All humans, regardless of whether you have XX (girl) or XY (boy) chromosomes start out as “girls”. The absence of testosterone, and some other hormones, makes for a girl. The presence of testosterone, makes for a boy. I found this on a website so I am paraphrasing it:

Sexual differentiation of the mammalian brain is dependent on the presence or absence of estradiol, which is formed from testosterone. If you are a boy, some of your secreted testosterone is converted to estradiol, which masculinizes the male fetus’ brain. "Masculinizing" means giving it characteristics of a male brain, like being bigger, having a different metabolic pattern, and some larger structures (INAH-3, SDN-POA) compared with female brains. If you are a girl, there is no testosterone to be converted to estradiol. The Estradiol you get from Mom, you rely on alpha-fetoprotein to bind and disable estradiol.

Now, there are 2 critical periods for sexual differentiation. The first occurs in utero, the second at puberty. However, this is not to say that between these two times there are sensitivities to hormones. But this is the very simplified intro.

There is a website I found that basically calls soy products poison. The main reason it lists is that it is causing kids to be homosexual if they were exposed to infant soy milk. I won’t even list the website because it is spurious and egregious (in my opinion). But the “research” that this idiot (oops did I say that?), I mean author was using he never actually listed so who knows. Damn who knew that a soybean could open the magical world of gayness! So off I went to do my own research and here is what I found.

The basis of the soy=homo premise is based on a book by Dr. Doris Rapp who wrote “Is This Your Child’s World? (Bantam Books; 1996), p. 501. I have not read this book but what I know about her is that she is a pediatric allergist. Two websites have used her alleged claim that:
“Male children fed soy formulas and soy products may not ever get to like girls. Doris Rapp, MD, the world’s leading pediatric allergist, asserts that environmental and food estrogens are responsible for the increase in male homosexuality and the worldwide reduction in male fertility.”
Now I have not idea if Dr. Rapp actually believes this, or if this is just a distorted view taken from her book. Regardless, I could NOT find any actual scientific articles linking isoflavones/soy/phytoestrogens to homosexuality. Homosexuality and sexual orientation is a HUGE topic. But since this is a blog (mostly) about child development and neuroscience, I will present a few scientific articles relevant to this topic.

A study by Storm et al. (2001) investigated different measures in men and women like onset of menarche, weight, height, sexual orientation, etc. These participants were in their 20’s and 30’s and were fed either “cow milk” formula or “soy milk” formula. They found no significant difference in sexual orientation. Period. Here is the studies’ actual conclusion “Exposure to soy formula does not appear to lead to different general health or reproductive outcomes than exposure to cow milk formula” (Storm et al., 2001). Now they do admit that they didn’t have the population numbers required to really draw a more definitive conclusion, which in layman’s terms means it happened too infrequently to be evaluated.

There is some evidence that soy can interfere with reproduction. I found this article which just about sums it up:
Isoflavone (IF), a type of phytoestrogen, has multiple beneficial effects, but too much phytoestrogen can have adverse effects on offspring. To examine whether chronic exposure to high IF has adverse effects on reproductive development, mice offspring were exposed to IF through dietary administration to dams during pregnancy and lactation and to the offspring directly after weaning until sacrifice. In male offspring, there was no difference between the IF group and controls; however, in female offspring in the IF group, remarkably earlier puberty and induction of multioocyte follicles on postnatal day (PND) 21 were observed. Gene expression levels of estrogen receptor beta decreased in the ovary and vagina on PND 21. These results suggest that chronic exposure to higher than normal levels of IF induces alterations in the reproductive development of female mice through an estrogenic effect.
Effect of exposure to high isoflavone-containing diets on prenatal and postnatal offspring mice.Takashima-Sasaki K, Komiyama M, Adachi T, Sakurai K, Kato H, Iguchi T, Mori C. Department of Bioenvironmental Medicine, Graduate School of Medicine, Chiba University. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2006 Dec;70(12):2874-82. Epub 2006 Dec 7.

Then I found this article:
The goal of this study was to determine if exposure to genistein, an isoflavone found in soy, during early periods of sex differentiation alters reproductive development and behavior in male mice. Female C57BL/6 mice were fed a phytoestrogen-free diet supplemented with 0, 5 or 300 mg/kg of genistein throughout gestation and lactation. Anogenital distance (AGD) and body mass of male offspring was measured weekly from postnatal days 2-21, timing of preputial separation was assessed at puberty, and in adulthood, reproductive organ masses, sperm and testosterone production, and reproductive and aggressive behaviors were assessed. Exposure to genistein resulted in smaller AGD are reduced body mass, with the low-dose diet exerting a greater effect. Timing of preputial separation, adult reproductive behavior, sperm concentrations and testosterone production were not influenced by genistein treatment at either dose. Aggressive behaviors were decreased, whereas defensive behaviors were increased, in males that received the low-dose genistein diet. Exposure to genistein during critical periods of sex differentiation results in concurrent and persistent demasculinization in male mice.
Perinatal exposure to genistein alters reproductive development and aggressive behavior in male mice. Wisniewski AB, Cernetich A, Gearhart JP, Klein SL. Department of Pediatrics, Division of Pediatric Endocrinology, The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, USA. Physiol Behav. 2005 Feb 15;84(2):327-34. Epub 2005 Jan 12

Well doesn’t that just take the wind out of my sails…not so fast, though. Demasculinization and lower testosterone don’t mean homosexual. Mainly this article mentions affects to aggressive versus defensive behaviors. Let me repeat its statement “Timing of preputial separation, adult reproductive behavior, sperm concentrations and testosterone production were not influenced by genistein treatment at either dose”. So there you have it. Another example of how some studies find effects, and subsequent ones do not. But even if soy products lower sperm count and testosterone, there are plenty of heterosexual men that have low testosterone and you don’t see them running for the gay hills, right?! There is a laundry list of articles that state that soy-based phytoestrogens don’t interfere with all reproductive functions and/or behavior:

W.A. Fritz, M.S. Cotroneo, J. Wang, I.E. Eltoum and C.A. Lamartiniere, Dietary diethylstilbestrol but not genistein adversely affects rat testicular development, J. Nutr. 133 (2003) (7), pp. 2287–2293.

N Atanassova, C McKinnell, K.J. Turner, M. Walker, J.S. Fisher and M. Morley et al., Comparative effects of neonatal exposure of male rats to potent and weak (environmental) estrogens on spermatogenesis at puberty and the relationship to adult testis size and fertility: evidence for stimulatory effects of low estrogen levels, Endocrinology 141 (2000) (10), pp. 3898–38907.

Nagao, S. Yoshimura, Y. Saito, M. Nakagomi, K. Usumi and H. Ono, Reproductive effects in male and female rats of neonatal exposure to genistein, Reprod. Toxicol. 15 (2001) (4), pp. 399–411

N. Masutomi, M. Shibutani, H. Takagi, C. Uneyama, N. Takahashi and M. Hirose, Impact of dietary exposure to methoxychlor, genistein, or diisononyl phthalate during the perinatal period on the development of the rat endocrine/reproductive systems in later life, Toxicology 192 (2003) (2–3), pp. 149–170.

So, to sum this all up, I would say that there really isn’t any concrete evidence that infant soy formula has anything to do with homosexuality. While soy products may decrease fertility, and affect certain reproductive aspects, or lower testosterone, this is WAAAAYYYY different than saying it causes our boys to like other boys. All in all, I don’t think cow’s milk is the golden ticket either. Cow’s milk is laden with growth and other hormones, and antibiotics, and you really wanna tell me that isn’t affecting out kidlets? In addition, while I am not expert in food anthropology, wouldn’t countries that consume a lot of soy products, like oh I don’t know, China, Japan, Vietnam, to name a few, have higher instances of homosexuality? Maybe we consume more soy products here? Dunno?

Ok, I am ready…bring it! No really, I would love to get feedback, your viewpoints, or, dare I say…evidence counter to what I presented!

The Wonders of Motor Development

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at Wednesday, July 01, 2009
I am quite sleepy. My son, who is 5.5 months old, within the last 2 days has shown some cool motor developments. Well, cool if you are a Mommy, or are related to my kidlet. Otherwise, you could probably give a rats’ ass :) For the past two nights my son has shown his new ability…to roll onto his tummy! It is incredibly cute. Just.One.Issue. He gets mad when he rolls onto his tummy, and starts to cry, which means I get up, go to his crib, and roll him back on his back. I must backpeddle and say that prior to 2 nights ago, he slept for most of the night, except for one nighttime feeding. Now, in addition to his nighttime feeding, I get up about 3-4 times to roll him back onto his back. Hence, sleepy Mommy. But in the end, it is still really cute. He has also mastered grabbing his toes. Babies are just downright, effing cute! Grabbing toes has to be one of the cutest things. Based on my reading and research, it appears my kidlet is right in line with his motor development. I would attempt to go into the neurobiology of motor development, after all I study the motor cortex, however, I AM TOO DAMN SLEEPY! But looking at him nap (and the million other things he does) makes it all worth it!

Extreme Male Theory of Autism

Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at Tuesday, June 30, 2009
I have debated whether or not to approach the topic of Autism. After reading a recent article, I decided to broach it. I must preface this entry by saying that I do not study Autism, but it is definitely a very hot topic of study and research in the Neuroscience community. There have been quite a few theories presented as an explanation for why and how Autism is “caused”. As with any other disease or limitation of the brain, there are probably a host of reasons and causes for any one particular disease. This is very challenging for Neuroscientists, doctors, etc because it impacts our/their ability to find the most optimal rehabilitation or cure. On the other hand, the complexities of these various ailments of the brain just go to show how marvelous and intricate our brain is!

Autism is classified as a Pervasive Developmental Disorder. There are a variety of symptoms that typically appear before the age of 3. Symptoms are (but not limited to) impairments in social interactions, language development, repetitive behavior and limited interests. There is definitely a known genetic cause of Autism, however, whether or not it is caused by genetic mutations or a combination of “faulty” genes is unclear. There has been a recent surge in groups adamant that vaccines cause Autism. While I respect that these groups have some convincing evidence, overall this theory just doesn’t hold water when you look at the majority of scientific data from studies. Now before I go and piss off all of those who feel that vaccines have a strong correlation to Autism, I must remind everyone that correlation DOES NOT equal causation. Just because something is correlated, does not mean you can assume it has any real part in causing the ailment. However, I do feel that we probably over-vaccinate and the groups that try to link a correlation between vaccinations and Autism have definitely highlighted this point.

I just read an article that touched on a chemical exposure theory to Autism. This, in addition to a genetic predisposition, is probably a good summation of what contributes to the onset of Autism. The article was written by Harvey Karp, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at UCLA and (for all you Moms out there) the author of “The Happiest Baby”. The rational he presents in his article is pretty darn convincing. Here is the summation: our households are being invaded by a number of chemicals like formaldehyde, fire retardants, bisphenol A (BPA-an organic compound present in plastics), phthlates (substances added to plastics to increase durability, flexibility), etc. These little chemicals are known as known as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). “These substances are the focus of intense scrutiny because: 1) they're found in every home in America 2) they're increasingly linked to human disease 3) our exposure to them has risen in parallel with the surge in autism diagnoses and 4) they may theoretically affect the developing fetal brain” (Karp). In both humans and animal studies, EDC’s have been linked to a variety of health ailments including cancer, interruption of reproductive function and other hormone-related disorders. In 1996, Clinton and Congress designed tests and ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to test various chemicals that were suspected to be EDC’s. However, when Bush came into office, testing was stopped and the law ignored. According to Dr. Harp, “our exposure to EDCs is no mere theoretical concern. In 2000, a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study found detectable phthalates in 99.9% of adults including women of childbearing age. The CDC also discovered detectable levels of BPA in 93% of thousands of Americans tested (6 years of age and older)”.
A major concern is that these chemicals are found in women of childbearing age. Therefore, it is only logical to conclude that these chemicals could be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus, and thus affect the developing brain. So now we introduce the “extreme male theory” of Autism. The theory is based on the premise that boys are approximately 4 times more likely to have Autism than girls. If something occurs, like exposure to one or an accumulation of many EDC’s, the effect may be over-masculinization of the brain. According to Karp, this theory is supported by 2 pieces of evidence: 1) elevated exposure to testosterone in utero results in a heightened male-type behavior (i.e. impaired language development) and 2) male and female autistic children show heightened male characteristics like impaired social and language development. EDC’s can cause masculinization in utero.
I am not suggesting that this “extreme male theory” is the end-all-be-all, but the evidence and research is pretty disconcerting. I do think we can go overboard and become too worrisome about trace level of chemicals. However, I personally work with formaldehyde and I can tell you that we take A LOT of precautions to limit our exposure as much as possible. It is a known carcinogen. So if adult exposure is harmful, surely exposure in utero, infancy or childhood is deleterious.

As a side note, concern over both BPA and phthalates has risen in both America and Europe and are being phased out of many products. In fact, I only buy BPA and phthalates-free products for my son.

Can't We All Just Bond?

Thursday, June 25, 2009 at Thursday, June 25, 2009
I have always been interested in how babies bond with their mothers. Multiple studies, including primates, have shown that early bonding occurs and is crucial for development. But just how important is this early interaction? How early is early? What are the benefits of early bonding?

Previous research has indicated some really cool immediate postnatal abilities. For example, immediately after birth, a baby has the ability to crawl up to Mommy’s breast and suckle! Which brings up an interesting side-note: why do some infants have a harder time learning how to breastfeed compared to others? But I digress. There are basically 2 camps in the research into early bonding. Camp 1 has shown research showing immediate benefits to the mother-infant contact. Babies that are intensively handled because of all of the neonatal tests, weighing, etc are negatively affected. Camp 2 did not find these negative effects, more specifically, did not show the beneficial effects of immediate mother-infant bonding. Research using multiple animal models has found deleterious effects if the separation from the mother is long-term. In newborn rats, long-term separation can result in an increased neuroendocrine response and basically make for a more stressed out adult rat. However, short-term experiences, via handling, actually shows an attenuated neuroendocrine response and a less stressed out adult rat. In primates, even a single long-term separation episode results social distortions in play and interactions.

I found an interesting article called “Neonatal Handling Affects Durably Bonding and Social Development” by Henry et al., 2009. The purpose of this study was to examine how intense handling and maternal separation 1 hour after birth affects the newborn. This study used horses. I know! Horses! But, as the article points out, horses and their babies (foals) are remarkably similar to humans. Horses have single births, show similar bonding after birth and have long suckling/lactating periods. The article also points out that foals exposed to human handling during the newborn period will go on to show a mistrust of humans. The basic design of the study was: Group 1: experimental foals who were separated from their mothers, handled for 1 hour immediately after birth; Group2: control foals were undisturbed after birth. Both groups were monitored from early development into adolescence in their natural environment. Here is what the study found: foals that had 1 hour of handling and were separated from their mothers immediately after birth had “insecure attachment to their mothers (strong dependency on their mothers, little exploration or play) and impaired traits of social competence (increased withdrawal and aggressiveness, impaired play) from an early age to young adulthood, while other behavioral features were not affected” (Henry et al. 2009). These results suggest that disruptions in the immediate interaction and bonding between a mother and her foal resulted in some pretty clear disturbances in the foals social functioning.

So I guess the obvious question is should we change the testing procedures for newborns? Is there more flexibility in human newborns to allow for some minimal separation?

Your thoughts or input?

Henry S, Richard-Yris M-A, Tordjman S, Hausberger M (2009) Neonatal Handling Affects Durably Bonding and Social Development. PLoS ONE 4(4): e5216.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005216

Music to my Ears

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 at Tuesday, June 09, 2009
I am sure every Mom has heard that exposing their infants/young children to classical music or learning to play an instrument make for a smarter, brighter child in general. But what effect does music really play on brain development and how does that translate (if at all) to other forms of learning? Before getting into the nitty gritty of the article, lets go over some key concepts. First and foremost is the wonderful way that our adult brains change in response to our environment and stimuli, called neuroplasticity. Until recently, scientists thought our brains did not have the potential to change, it was hard-wired. But some pretty landmark studies on monkeys and rats came out starting in the 1980’s and showed that, in fact, our brains DO change. Simply put: our environment, what we learn, new stimuli, all contribute to re-wiring and forming new connections in our brains, aka neuroplasticity. The brain of infants and toddlers is, in my opinion, even more remarkable. We are born with all of our neurons, yet, the synapses (part of the neuron that communicates with other neurons) are over produced. During the first formative years of life kids experience new things such as language, reading, etc. Their experiences help prune back these synapses. This is the main reason learning a variety of languages is easier at younger ages…kids have an over production of synapses just waiting for experiences, whereas adults have less and while our connections can be re-wired, it is a bit more challenging for us.

In March of this year an article came out in The Journal of Neuroscience about the effect of music on brain development in kids. The article is aptly titled “Musical Training Shapes Structural Brain Development”. The researchers looked at 2 groups of children: the “instrumental” group (15 kids) had weekly keyboard lessons for 15 months and a “control” group (16 kids) that only received 40 minutes of music class a week for 15 months. All kids were approximately 6 years old and were matched for gender, age and socioeconomic status. At the beginning and at the 15 month mark all kids underwent behavioral tests and MRI scans. The behavioral tests were meant to measure 1) fine motor skills of their fingers and 2) “music listening and discrimination skills” (Hyde et al., 2009). Their overall findings are that 15 months of music training led to regional specific structural changes in two important areas: motor and auditory areas. “Children who played and practiced a musical instrument showed greater improvements in motor ability (as measured by finger dexterity in both left and right hands) and in auditory melodic and rhythmic discrimination skills” (Hyde et al., 2009). However, improvements in visual-spatial or verbal domains were not seen. What this means is that learning a musical instrument did not transfer into improvements in brain areas not related to the learning of the instrument. The authors of this study state “these findings of structural plasticity in the young brain suggest that long-term intervention programs can facilitate neuroplasticity in children” (Hyde et al., 2009).

There were a couple questions that the either the authors mentioned or I thought of while reading the article. First, what if these “transfer” changes that were not seen would occur if the musical training would have been for a longer period? What if the instrument training included more sessions or longer sessions each week? Would you see similar changes in motor and auditory areas if the length of training was decreased but each training session was longer? What if multiple instruments were part of the learning?

I think that anecdotal and actual evidence exists to support the benefit of learning a musical instrument and how it can transfer to other forms of learning.

Any thoughts?

Hyde KL, Lerch J, Norton A, Forgeard M, Winner E, Evans AC, Schlaug G. Musical training shapes structural brain development. J Neurosci. 2009 Mar 11;29(10):3019-25

So I really can't use the TV as my babysitter...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009 at Wednesday, June 03, 2009
An article just came out in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine which found an interesting correlation between the amount of television watched and a delay in language development. Here is the (over)simplified breakdown of the study. The study consisted of 329 infants/toddlers, ages 2-48 months. Once a month, using a recording device, the verbal interactions of the parent and child would be analyzed. What the researchers found is that for every hour the child watched television, there was a 7% decrease in the number of verbal interactions (words) between the caregiver and child. The researchers contend that this decrease may delay a child's language development. They cite that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against television watching before 2 years of age, and instead encourages more parent/child interaction.

I realize this is a hot-button issue. There are many DVDs out there claiming to improve language skills in babies. There is even a channel devoted entirely to babies! I would like to interject some caveats to this study. Overall the study is well done and here are some of the caveats or disclaimers they introduce. 1) Was the language captured by their recording device intended for the infant? In other words, was this a caregiver/child interaction, or was the caregiver talking to her sister on the phone? 2) The study does not know which television programs were watched by the infants. Furthermore, was the television show actively being watched by the infant, or was it merely background noise?

The study also points out what I kept asking myself while reading the article: what happens if the parent interacts with the infant about the content of the program while the child watches television. If you are watching The Wiggles or Barney would it delay language acquisition and/or development IF you were talking about what was going on in the show? The big answer...YES! I know, surprising. But the article points out that from the infants perspective, the overlapping sounds of the television and the caregivers voice would basically be sensory overload. The researches contend that it is difficult for an infant to attend to 2 sounds simultaneously (Christakis et al., 2009).

One study (Linebarger and Walker, 2005) found a positive relationship between children under 2 and watching television. The average onset for television watching was 9 months. This study found that certain television shows like Dora the Explorer, Arthur, etc were associated with positive language development. However, shows like Teletubbies and even Sesame Street were associated with negative language development.

However, as noted by Anderson and Pempek (2005) most research suggests that children under 2 gain very little, if anything from watching television.

So I guess here is what I keep wondering: how much interaction is optimal? I can't imagine some television viewing is bad, provided you are interacting with your child enough. Why would some shows be beneficial, and others not? And do these DVDs and show geared for children under the age of 2 structure their shows similar to the shows that research has found to be beneficial? Any other thoughts?

Works Cited:

Dimitri A. Christakis; Jill Gilkerson; Jeffrey A. Richards; Frederick J. Zimmerman; Michelle M. Garrison; Dongxin Xu; Sharmistha Gray; Umit Yapanel. Audible Television and Decreased Adult Words, Infant Vocalizations, and Conversational Turns: A Population-Based Study. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163(6):554-558.

Linebarger, D. L., &Walker, D. (2005). Infants’ and toddlers’ television viewing and language outcomes. American Behavioral Scientist, 48, 624-645.

Daniel R. Anderson and Tiffany A. Pempek. Television and Very Young Children. American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 48, No. 5, 505-522


Friday, May 22, 2009 at Friday, May 22, 2009
Thanks for coming to a site dedicated to a further and more enriched understanding of how behavior and the brain changes in kiddos! As you can read in my profile, I will present research and information about how the brain (and behavior) change in kids. I will also provide some resources, like books, if you would like more information.

There are three very important points I must make from the start. 1) I am NOT a medical doctor. I am working on a PhD in Neuroscience. I will NOT be speaking as an expert in the field of child development, etc. I am simply presenting research, giving my opinion, and looking forward to your input/feedback. 2) Every baby/child develops at their own rate. This information is never intended to strike concern in you. It is for information purposes ONLY. 3) Some of the research I present will be on animals, that is just the nature of research. I wish we lived in a time when we no longer needed to do animal research. But that simply is not the reality. Please, please, understand that I am completely sensitive to the fact that animal research does not sit well with everyone. However, this is not a forum to discuss the ethical (or lack of ethics depending on where you stand) implications of animal research.

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