Nascent Facial Images

Fetal imaging has grown slowly but surely over the last 2 decades.  Today we have 4D imaging that shows unborn babies in surprisingly great detail.  According to new research reported on by Mail Online, babies begin practicing their facial expressions such as smiling 16 weeks before they are born.

The study led by psychologists at Durham University, monitored the development of the unborn infants’ emotional and language abilities.  Their findings are published in the journal Physiology and Behaviour.

The researchers took ultrasound scans of 15 healthy fetuses at regular intervals between 24 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. Using 4D scans, that can capture frame-by-frame pictures, the scientists tracked the fetuses’ mouth movements and compared them to the development of the different parts of their brains.  The right side of the human brain is related to emotional skills and controls the left-sided mouth movements, whereas the left side of the brain is linked to language skills, and controls the right-hand side of the mouth.  The researchers found that the mouth movements they tracked were significantly biased towards emotional left-sided movements.

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Their findings suggest that babies refine the neurological ability to show emotion very early in their development.  Previous research into the development of babies between five and 12 months of age has shown that they use the right side of their mouth when babbling, suggesting that the left part of their brain is specialized for language.  Lead author Dr Nadja Reissland noted:

 “As the left hemisphere of the brain is larger in fetuses from 22 weeks you would expect to see that the right side of the child’s face is more expressive, but we found the opposite.  What our research shows is that while both right and left mouth openings increased as the fetus grew, there was a consistent bias towards left-sided mouth openings.  This suggests that babies are more neurologically prepared to use the emotionally expressive side of their face and that the neurological preparedness to use language develops later when it is needed.

Psychologists say the images show infants practicing mouth movements (which express their emotions) that they will need after birth to bond with their parents.

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