Can Studying A Baby's Cries Provide Health Clues?

“There are lots of conditions that might manifest in differences in cry acoustics.  For instance, babies with birth trauma or brain injury as a result of complications in pregnancy or birth or babies who are extremely premature can have ongoing medical effects. Cry analysis can be a noninvasive way to get a measurement of these disruptions in the neurobiological and neurobehavioral systems in very young babies.”

Stephen Sheinkopf, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Brown University.

Though a baby's cries can alert parents that the infant needs to be changed or fed,  detecting minutes changes in baby cries that can signal disease is a far more difficult challenge. 

Researchers at Brown University and Rhode Island's Women and Infants Hospital have developed a computerized tool to carry out acoustic analyses of baby cries.  Using this tool, researchers hope to investigate possible signs of neurological problems and identify children at risk for developmental disorders.     Developed over a two-year collaboration between the hospital and Brown's School of Engineering, the research results are currently in press in the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research.    Working in two phases, the baby cry analyser first records cries into 12.5 millisecond frames which are then analysed in terms of sound qualities such as frequency, volume, and voice production.   The second phase takes the initial data and examines using eighty different parameters, each of which could provide clues about the baby's health.  

Research into how a baby's cries can provide insight into health dates back to the 1960s.   There are well-known neurological disorders that can be diagnosed by how a baby cries, including the Cri du Chat syndrome in which affected babies can be identified by their characteristic cry which is similar to a mewing cat.    Though the Cri du Chat is easy to recognize, the researchers who developed the baby cry analyser are hoping that measuring slight variations in a baby's cries, which are often undetectible to the human ear, can help identify infants at risk for other diseases.  

Though early attempts at a baby cry analyser have often been clumsy due to lack of available technology, the new automatic analyser is much easier to use and provides far greater detail.   The team at Brown University is already planning to make the analyser available to researchers around the world to expand baby cry research. 

According to Barry Lester, director of Brown's Center for the Study of Children at Risk, how a baby cries can be a windon into the brain.  Lester had studied baby cries for years and worked to develop the baby cry analyser along with Harvy Silverman, professor of engineering and director of Brown’s Laboratory for Engineering Man/Machine Systems as well as Stephen Sheinkopf and a team of graduate students.    In explaining why a baby's cries could provide medical clues, Lester stated that neurological deficits can affect how babies control their vocal cords and his research has already shown that differences in crying can be linked to malnutrition, prenatal substance exposure, and other health risks.

And that can include developmental disorders such as autism.  Though identifiying signs of autism in infants has been impossible up to now, Stephen Sheinkopt is already planning to use the baby cry analyser to search for diagnostic clues that might allow for early detection.    “We’ve known for a long time that older individuals with autism produce sounds or vocalizations that are unusual or atypical,” Sheinkopf said. “So vocalizations in babies have been discussed as being useful in developing early identification tools for autism. That’s been a major challenge. How do you find signs of autism in infancy?”  

The Dartmouth research has been funded by e National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders








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