Researchers from Imperial College London, in collaboration with the Santa Lucia Foundation and Casilino Hospital in Rome, have developed a non-invasive cuff that slips onto freely kicking babies’ legs to monitor neuronal activity without the need for surgery.

This could provide a new method for monitoring movements in babies, and new insights into how babies’ reflexes – like kicking – develop. These insights and the cuff could also be used to spot early signs of motor disorders such as cerebral palsy, a media release from Imperial College London suggests.

Described in a study published in Science Advances, the system is designed to decode the electrical field potentials on the body surface and mathematically reverse their generation process, thus identifying the neural activity of the spinal cord.

Using the cuff the researchers suggest that, unlike fast leg movements in adults, babies’ kicks are generated by the neurons in the spinal cord firing at the exact same time. This ‘extreme synchronization’, the researchers say, increases the force generated by muscles attached to the nerves – which explains why babies’ kicks can be relatively hard and fast even though their muscles are still weak and slow.

“This is a fundamental discovery of how fetuses and babies develop. The findings, and the new technology that helped us make the discovery, could help monitor development in babies and spot signs of motor disorders like cerebral palsy early on.”

— lead author Professor Dario Farina of Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering

“The new monitoring cuff is an exciting technological achievement that could help us monitor babies for signs of motor problems so that we can diagnose and treat them early.”

— Co-senior author Professor Francesco Lacquaniti of the University of Rome Tor Vergata and Santa Lucia Foundation

Fundamental Discovery

The cuff attaches to the lower leg and contains a neuromuscular interface which records the electrical signals on the skin. It then decodes these signals and their timings to work out which spinal cord neurons are firing, and how quickly.

They tested the cuff on four freely kicking healthy babies aged two to 14 days old, and on twelve adult men doing various movements.

They suggest that in babies, all neurons fire closely in time to generate a kick, whereas there was significantly less synchronization in the adult individuals, the release continues.

“Generating fast movements is vital for human survival and health. Babies can already kick very fast just days after birth, and now we know that they do so using all spinal nerves at the same time.”

— Dario Farina

Evolutionary advantage?

Baby kicks are thought to strengthen leg muscles and prepare the infant to roll over and eventually learn to walk. However, the researchers say their findings could suggest another advantage.

“The strength and speed of the kicking, as well as the synchronization of nerve activity, could suggest that kicking has a more immediate protective advantage for babies. Perhaps babies developed such strong kicks through evolution to avoid potential dangers like predators.”

— Dr Del Vecchio, the first author of the study from Professor Farina’s research group

The researchers are now looking into monitoring spinal neurons in babies with motor disorders like cerebral palsy. They hope their research could help to develop new clinical markers for the early diagnoses of these types of disorders, the release concludes.

[Source(s): University College London, EurekAlert]

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