Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : September 3rd 2013 Contents A28
body & soul
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Tuesday, September 3, 2013
A newborn s cry can signal more
than whether she is hungry or tired.
Subtle differences in infant wailing
can provide important clues to later
developmental and neurological condi-
tions, such as poor language acquisition.
Cry characteristics may also give hos-
pitals a way to assess pain when treating
babies. Down the road, researchers hope
cry analysis may help doctors detect
conditions and start treatment earlier.
Researchers at Brown University and
Women & Infants Hospital in Providence
have devised a computer program to
help analyse a baby s cries. They hope
to soon make it available to researchers
world-wide looking to analyse crying
patterns that can t always be detected
by the human ear.
The computer program breaks down
cries into 12.5-millisecond frames and
measures the pitch and volume, among
other parameters. In total, it can evaluate
80 different parameters, which could
help detect risk for conditions affecting
a newborn baby s health.
Because a cry is controlled by cranial
nerves, it can be a window into the brain.
While researchers haven t reached the
stage where they can link cry charac-
teristics with specific conditions, they ve
found that, on a group level, an infant s
nervous system and therefore cry can
be affected by prenatal exposure to alco-
hol, birth injuries, and even related to
later diagnoses of autism.
Researchers aren t at the stage where
cries can pinpoint specific illness,
although that is the ultimate goal. Today,
a baby s cry can be tapped for informa-
tion on pain and the nervous system.
In the 1960s researchers began eval-
uating baby s cries in relation to the dis-
order Cri du chat, French for the cry of
the cat. Babies with the rare genetic dis-
order have a very distinct and high-
pitched cry discernible to the human
ear.Pitch is number of times the vocal
chords vibrate per second. A normal
baby s cry pitch is about 400 hertz
(cycles per second). A baby with Cri du
chat, on the other hand, would have
one of 1,000 hertz or higher.
A new computer program devised by
researchers in Providence, RI, breaks
down a baby s cries in myriad ways. The
top panel shows a cry s pitch, or fre-
quency. The second plots additional fre-
quency characteristics of the cry, called
formants. The third shows how clear
the cry sound is, a phenomenon known
as "voicing" or "phonation." The final
panel is a measure of the energy or loud-
ness of the cry.
While researchers have evaluated cries
with more labour-intensive systems in
the past, the Brown researchers say the
automated analyser will result in a more
detailed and faster process.
Philip Sanford Zeskind, director of
neurodevelopmental research at Car-
olinas HealthCare System s Levine
Children s Hospital in Charlotte, NC,
said analysing a baby s cry is espe-
cially pertinent during the first two
to three months before a baby picks
up on social cues (ie: cry and mommy
will come running).
"We can start right at birth," said Dr
Zeskind. "The analysis of crying can tell
you if there s something wrong with the
baby s nervous system even in the
absence of routine signs on physical and
His research has found that even
healthy babies born full-term and with
normal neurological exams can have
cries indicating something is wrong with
the nervous system due to prenatal alco-
hol exposure. Those findings from a
small study were published in a 1996
article in the journal Infant Behaviour
A cry s pitch is controlled by the brain
stem and a complex of cranial nerves
that goes out of the brain stem and to
the muscles associated with the larynx.
"When listening to the pitch of a cry
what you re really doing is listening to
the brain stem," Dr Zeskind said.
A cry can communicate information
on how a baby gets aroused and how
much sensory stimulation affects him.
"Babies with the high-pitched cries very
frequently have other signs that their
nervous system gets easily stressed or
overstimulated," he said.
Barry Lester, a professor of psychiatry
and paediatrics at the Warren Alpert
Medical School of Brown University,
said any digital recorder with taped cries
can be plugged into the computer sys-
tem. The computer reads it and breaks
it down and does a series of computa-
tions to analyse the cry in various ways.
Characteristics that can be measured
include pitch variability, time between
cries, and how long they last. Dr Lester
developed the program with Stephen
Sheinkopf, assistant professor of psy-
chiatry and paediatrics at Brown, and
Harvey Silverman, an engineering pro-
fessor at Brown.
In a 2012 article in the journal Autism
Research, Drs Sheinkopf and Lester and
other researchers examined the acoustic
characteristics of infant cries in babies
at risk for autism compared with those
that weren t. Cry samples were obtained
from 21 6-month-old infants at risk for
autism spectrum disorder compared
with 18 low-risk infants. They found
that at-risk infants had higher pitched
cries with a more variable frequency.
The researchers concluded that there
was preliminary evidence that "disrup-
tions in cry acoustics may be part of an
atypical vocal signature of autism in
Determining pain in a newborn is
another possible use, Dr Sheinkopf said.
"One challenge for hospital staff is to
actually measure and monitor pain," he
said. "Pain-related cries may be different
than non-pain-related cries in a
way that could be useful for doctors
to monitor the status of babies"
Pain cries usually have a con-
siderably longer pause between the
first and second utterance. The first
utterance is also usually louder and
longer because the baby has to let
out so much air, so it can last four
to five seconds or more, as opposed
to two or three.
Many more messages in baby's cry
Subtle differences in infant wailing can provide important clues to later
developmental and neurological conditions, such as poor language
YOUR DAILY HEALTH
News and Advice
A newborn's cry can signal more than whether she is hungry or tired.
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