It's been well-documented that a baby first finds out more about the outside world through their lips. When only a few weeks old, lips are what are used to get access to nourishment and find out more about objects that a baby is barely able to grasp with their hands.
But until recently researchers were unsure about how much a baby's lips contributed to their intellectual development. A study conducted by the University of Washington Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences which was released in June has shed more light on the subject.
They found that during those first few weeks after birth, a baby has a lot more neurological connections to the lips. Scanning the brains of two-month-old infants revealed that lips transmit more neurological information than hands, feet or any other part of the child's anatomy.
The results may gauge not only how babies learn through something trivial like sucking its thumb, but even more significant findings like how its able to communicate and garner language skills.
"Lips are important for babies," said Andrew Meltzoff, a psychology professor who helped orchestrate the study. "They use lips for sucking, but lips are also used to articulate speech sounds and to communicate emotions—a pout versus a smile. Young babies are lip experts, and their brains reflect this."
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While researchers assessing adult brain activity in association with the rest of the body (in what is called a neural body map) is quite common, using the same process has very seldom been performed on babies. Instead of putting the babies in one of those annoying magnetic resonance imaging machines, scientists had caps made that contained sensors designed to pick up signals in a process they call "electroencephalography." They then put the caps on 25 two-month-old babies chosen for the study.
Researchers narrowed their results by measuring the effect of touch on the somatosensory cortex, that stretches from between the ears to the top of the head. After tapping other parts of the body, including lips, hands, and feet, scientists measured the strength of the signals from the cortex. The signals of taps originating from the lips registered the highest.
Results from the study will apparently go a long way towards learning more about childhood development.