Your very first breath kickstarts life-changing support system, mice study finds
Study reveals how a newborn's critical breathing system is triggered – and how sudden death infant syndrome may be prevented in future.
Your first breath as a baby may have been your most important, according to a study based on newborn mice.
Scientists from the University of Virginia School of Medicine have discovered that a mouse’s first gasp after birth triggers a signal within the brainstem, activating a breathing support system critical as a baby exits the womb.
Before they are born, both human and mice babies aren’t required to breathe in the womb. This is thanks to oxygenated blood circulated by the mother through the umbilical cord. At birth, a child’s lungs are filled with liquid, inflating only after the baby takes their first breath.
"Birth is traumatic for the newborn, as the baby has to independently take control over various important body functions, including breathing," said Professor Douglas Bayliss, one of the researchers.
"We think that activation of this support system at birth provides an extra safety factor for this critical period."
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It’s hoped a better understanding of this brainstem signalling system could help prevent brain-damaging and potentially deadly pauses in babies’ breathing.
Specifically, researchers found that mice possess a gene that produces a neurotransmitter – a messenger between neurons – immediately after birth. Deactivating this transmitter, they found, caused serious breathing problems in mice.
This suggests that a problem with the neurotransmitter or guiding gene could contribute to sudden death infant syndrome (SIDS). Also known as cot death, SIDS is the leading cause of infant mortality in Western countries.
"These findings raise the interesting possibility that additional birth-related changes may occur in the control systems for breathing and other critical functions," Bayliss added.
However, the research states that there may be other important factors contributing to SIDS left to discover. Plus, it’s yet to be seen how insightful this mice study is to human childbirth.
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Thomas is a Staff Writer at BBC Science Focus and looks after all things Q&A. Writing about everything from cosmology to anthropology, he specialises in the latest psychology and neuroscience discoveries. Thomas has a Masters degree (distinction) in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield and has written for Men’s Health, Vice and Radio Times. He has been shortlisted as the New Digital Talent of the Year at the national magazine Professional Publishers Association (PPA) awards.