Science Question from a Toddler: Life before birth

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57 Responses to “Science Question from a Toddler: Life before birth”

  1. The Thompson Five says:

    I am so glad my job does not require me to blind kittens or de-vocalized duck embryos.

    • boxlightbox says:

      my thoughts exactly. blindfolded kittens. maybe they develop sonar. i’d be ok with that. x-men kittens.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “A researcher named Gilbert Gottlieb found that, if he de-vocalized a duck embryo”

    As I read this, I couldn’t help but hear the distinctive voice of the comedian Gilbert Gottfried name talking about “devocalizing a duck”. And a quick googling tells me that Gottfried happens to be the person who voices the AFLAC duck.

    There *has* to be a master planner to the universe and he/she/it has the sickest sense of humor…

  3. jackie31337 says:

    Wow, what an amazing and thorough answer to my question! It seems appropriate somehow that a lot of the research has ended up benefiting preemies, since the baby I was talking to all those years ago eventually grew up to be the father of two preemies.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I find it quite amazing, the discussion about abortion and personhood and brain activity and fetuses and zygotes… all the unnecessary, overblown, bloviating and speculation, amuses me.
    A simpleton understands that a fertilized egg (in any stage before birth, or after for that matter) that is destroyed, will not be a fellow citizen, in the future, ever.
    Wether or not it is or isn’t at the point of it’s destruction does not matter at all. We all do fully understand what has been stopped, has been prevented.
    I suppose people find themselves trying to explain away very easily understood yet disturbing facts.
    The article does quite the opposite. It takes the very basis of common sense and ones own experience, and expounds upon what every set of parents, even every adult, can easily surmise with the least bit of effort.
    Yes, the most fascinating thing here is all the bluster and roundabouts that state the obvious and the fewer that rather unfortunately ignore them and skid betwixt instead.

    • Jesse M. says:

      A simpleton understands that a fertilized egg (in any stage before birth, or after for that matter) that is destroyed, will not be a fellow citizen, in the future, ever.
      Wether or not it is or isn’t at the point of it’s destruction does not matter at all. We all do fully understand what has been stopped, has been prevented.
      I suppose people find themselves trying to explain away very easily understood yet disturbing facts.

      I think what the fetus is at the point of its destruction definitely matters when considering the morality–there is nothing inherently “disturbing” to me about the mere idea of preventing a potential future “fellow citizen” from coming into existence. After all, every time an ovulating woman chooses not to have sex with some random dude hitting on her, there’s a decent chance that if she had done so, the result would have been a pregnancy and a new “fellow citizen” in the future, so by choosing not to have sex with the dude she’s preventing this potential from being realized. But I think few would say there’s anything “disturbing” about her choice in this case! It’s not like we have a moral obligation to maximize the number of potential humans that actually come into existence, if every fertile woman got pregnant as often as humanly possible the world would be vastly more overpopulated than it already is and the result would be terrible for just about everyone.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hi,

    I was born at 26 weeks (14 weeks early) in 1984 and I am perfectly healthy. Brain waves or no I am ardently pro-life.

    • robulus says:

      I was born at 26 weeks (14 weeks early) in 1984 and I am perfectly healthy.

      I am ardently pro-life.

      I don’t get the connection, is there supposed to be one?

  6. Anonymous says:

    I’m going to put an end to the debate once and for all. The question: “When does life begin?”

    The answer: “At 40.”

    There. Happy now?

    Return to the article with a fresh new perspective.
    You can thank me later.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Abortion controversy will last until people learn to make the difference between a fetus and an embryo.
    This confusion is the best argument in the arsenal of pro-life trolls.

    • spool32 says:

      Not that I necessarily agree, but the pro-life argument hinges on when ~life~ begins, not when response to sensory input is measurable.

      Both sides have positions grounded in belief, not science.

  8. Eric Ragle says:

    Interesting article. I’d like to see this research implemented into some sort of training program for expectant parents. I would have loved to be able to help my children have better eyesight. Of course it ultimately comes down to my own defective DNA, but still.

  9. Sekino says:

    I am suspicious of any articles that talk about the awareness or intelligence of a fetus. I have nothing against fetuses and I’d love to have kids of my own. However, the thing is that there are some forces in this country who spend quite a bit of money to say anything & everything to control womens’ access to abortion.

    It’s too bad that there are ill-informed activists who misuse information to push their agenda, no doubt. But just like knowledge on cognition/perception in babies was extremely poor until very recently, I think we have to consider the possibility that there might be some inconvenient truths to be discovered about fetuses as well. We don’t know all that much about them.

    While I lean on the pro-choice side, I feel we are basically doing our best with the (little) information we have. Of course, new information and research have to be unbiased and thorough, but once we get to that knowledge, and we inexorably will sooner or later, we might have to deal with it, no matter what we find.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Well, hot damn! I wondered why little Jimmy next door cussed so much! Heck, his Mom’s an over the road trucker who at one time tended bar and worked in a carnival. It all makes sense….

  11. Anonymous says:

    It stinks that articles like this inevitably sink fall into the abortion debate. However, I think that it just makes a stronger argument for more availability of birth control/morning after availability and very early term “abortion pill” availability.

    With that being said I think that to write off this scientific research as nothing more than “nerve responses” because of nothing more petty political views shows how little that view allows you to truly values life, especially of the human kind. It’s sad really.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Extremely interesting. I found the language acquisition part particularly illuminating in terms of the development of children in bilingual households. As the son of a Spanish-speaking mother and English-speaking father, I have always had trouble with speech recognition. I will hear the person perfectly, but won’t understand what they’re saying because the words seemingly blend together in an incoherent mass. I reflexively ask them to repeat their words and I always understand. According to this article, I am just attuned to the Spanish-speaker’s (and my mother’s) tendency to slur their words altogether. Interestingly, my mother’s slurred Spanish (Chilean Spanish, if anyone else if familiar) is registered by me as clear and succinct.

    Any other (former) bilingual children feel the same way?

  13. Terry says:

    I have always found language acquisition fascinating. Watching it occur in my own son has been (and continues to be) the most astonishingly delightful experience of my life. Like most growth, it seems to happen in spurts. Spurts that are coming more frequently as he gets older. While pretty much every aspect of parenting is mind-boggling, seeing your child go from “Want apple Daddy” to “Can I please have an apple, Daddy?” – virtually overnight – is amazing. And the most amazing part is that language is, indeed, acquired. It’s surprising how little time we spend correcting or instructing our son’s speech (in fact, we only do so when he says something mean to another person). Language just seems to get absorbed.

  14. AllisonWunderland says:

    Simultaneous bi-lingualism — My colleague did grad research on this for his dissertation. He is American. His wife is Japanese. Both are bi-lingual.

    The children, ages 10, 3, and less than a year, speak both languages at home and in a bi-lingual, Japanese/American school.

    Some of the findings:

    “Mother Tongue” is an apt term. Children learn languages first from their mothers.

    The three-year-old readily distinguishes between Japanese and English, typically understands which language to use with which speakers and pretty quickly picks up on speakers whose Japanese is marginal — limited to a few words or phrases. When grandma came to visit from Japan, he grasped that she didn’t speak English except for a few words and so often translated for her.

    We think the “language acquisition function” in humans declines with age. So is that cultural or biological?

  15. nonplus says:

    BTW, “exposure of children to multiple languages” doesn’t mean having them listen/watch foreign-language TV. You have to interact with the child in the foreign language, otherwise it’s just background noise to them.

    Also, Noam Chomsky’s theories on phonology are a bit outdated, so you may have better luck with something more contemporary.

  16. funchy says:

    I am suspicious of any articles that talk about the awareness or intelligence of a fetus. I have nothing against fetuses and I’d love to have kids of my own. However, the thing is that there are some forces in this country who spend quite a bit of money to say anything & everything to control womens’ access to abortion. It becomes really hard to tell good science from a self-serving piece of junk science. There are also some who are so in love with the idea of babies and fetuses they cannot objectively tell apart the development of a blob of cells of a zygote to the awareness of a 2 year old. It’s just too easy to blur science with personal beliefs.

    “are one of the few species that can see before we’re born.”

    Responding to light is not “seeing”. Plants respond to light all the time.

    “For instance, duck embryos peep to themselves while still inside their eggs. As they do that, they begin to recognize what a duck voice sounds like.”

    Just because something makes a noise, doesn’t mean it’s doing “recognition”. It could be simply nerves firing as the connections begin to form, and that circuit controls vocal control in ducks.

    ” These babies end up lacking a lot of the sensory experiences they need for normal development—the movement of being inside their mother, the smells and tastes of the womb, their mother’s voice—while simultaneously experiencing bright lights and loud noises that they wouldn’t normally.”

    How can you smell if you’re not pulling air across the olfactory bulb? How can you assume that if there are sounds outside the womb, the sound is audible and recognized by the embryo inside the womb? Can you prove any of this? Also be aware the studies on the preemies are by default done on babies that are not fully developed when born, so there may be a lurking variable (health issue, genetic flaw, malnutrition, drug use, or idiopathic cause) which causes both the premature birth AND the preemies specific responses to stimuli.

    I am as intrigued as anyone to answer the questions about cognition & awareness. I do believe life is a beautiful miracle! I hope some day we can have better answers.

    • Rindan says:

      I would be far more inclined to read an article that states that a fetus is an inert hunk of flesh until it is squeezed out by mommy. I am 200% pro-choice, but I can recognize that there are no hard barriers. The people who think that a fetus isn’t a baby until the second it passes a vagina on the way out are as wrong as the people who think that an embryo is a baby the second a sperm hits it.

      Personally, I think that abortion “debate” has gone off the deep end to the point where neither side has the ability to take any position other than the most extreme and sees any concession as “opening the door”. We as a society, should be able to agree that you shouldn’t be killing fetuses 2 hours from being born, and that it is a-okay to flush ones that are 2 hours old.

      Somewhere there is a mid point. At some point, a fetus has developed enough where we should probably start feeling a little morally squeamish about pulling out the old vacuum cleaner without a good reason. Instead of having an intelligent discussion on the issue we just have two radical sides that refuses to acknowledge that there might be a mid point.

      Is the right mid point one of viability, numerological development, or sensory growth? I don’t know and, frankly, don’t really care. If 10 third trimester abortions a year are disallowed because the fetus is too far along, I won’t consider the pro-choice movement to have suffered a crushing defeat. Nor should the pro-life movement feel that Armageddon has arrived if when a condom breaks mommy-to-be takes a pill and the whole nasty sperm and egg mess get the old flush.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      I am suspicious of any articles that talk about the awareness or intelligence of a fetus.

      It’s questionable enough in reference to adults.

  17. OoerictoO says:

    seriously? not one mention on _when_ these “signs of life” develop?

    • Lobster says:

      I’m guessing that’s because the article is about fetal development, not the abortion controversy.

      • OoerictoO says:

        i agree, and that’s what i’m getting at. but you’d have to pretty much purposefully avoid it just because of that issue. i find that suspicious.

      • omarius says:

        Reading these kinds of facts sure makes the controversy seem more…controversial.

        • Anonymous says:

          Why? Bodily autonomy is still an essential right, and fetuses still cannot survive on their own before viability by definition. It certainly makes an individual’s choice harder, but I don’t see how it makes the legal argument any different.

        • Jesse M. says:

          Well, it may seem less controversial when you learn that synapses don’t develop in the fetus’ brain until at least 20 weeks in (see here, here and here)…synapses are necessary for the neurons to exchange signals, so until they develop there can be no brain function at all (and the vast majority of abortions are performed before that time). The article presumably is talking about third-trimester fetuses (or very late second-trimester ones).

          • OoerictoO says:

            thank you. perhaps the article was dancing around this to not give ammunition to pro-choice proponents. again, i find this suspicious.

        • CCSurfer says:

          I agree. Discoveries like this do seem to undermine the “mass of tissue” position a bit.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Actually, RU486 is just as much an abortion as a surgical one. It’s not the same as the so called “morning after pill” which prevents the sperm from properly entering the egg (similar to normal contraceptive pills).

    RU486 causes the human induced miscarriage of a viable fetus… exactly the same thing as a surgical removal of said fetus.

    Maybe some people take comfort in an artificial distinction between a ‘real’ surgical abortion and a drug induced ‘miscarriage’. Personally I fail to see any difference in terms of ethical debate.

    An just to clarify — I believe that the life and rights of an existing human (that is to say, one that is born) are to be held in greater legal regard than those of a human who is not yet born, and may never be so.

    This article was really interesting to me, in that it kind of gives credence to the Catholic Church’s former view of the “quickening”, which was when a fetus gained a soul, and was therefore considered a person.

    • Jesse M. says:

      This article was really interesting to me, in that it kind of gives credence to the Catholic Church’s former view of the “quickening”, which was when a fetus gained a soul, and was therefore considered a person.

      Well, except that the Catholic Church imagined the “quickening” happening about 40 days in, but as I pointed out in comment #9, the fetus has no synapses in its brain (and thus no brain function of any kind) until at least 20 weeks (5 months) into the pregnancy. All the types of responses to the environment described in the article would only begin to develop sometime after that point. But if you’re just making the broad point that not all fetuses are equal and that later abortions are more morally troubling than earlier ones. I agree (but until brain functions begin I see it as not morally troubling in the slightest, since I don’t believe in any kind of supernatural soul…and in fact only about 1.4% of abortions in the US are performed later than 20 weeks, presumably many of those are motivated by a risk to the health of the mother)

      • spool32 says:

        Belief really is the core here. You don’t believe in a soul – others do. For pro-life advocates, the question of abortion hinges on when life begins, not on a specific developmental stage of the fetus. Discussions of the science necessarily occur parallel to, not across, the conflict between your belief and that of the pro-life advocate.

        Also, I marvel at the moral gymnastics involved in waving away the 1.4% of abortions performed after 20 weeks. “Morally troubling” is a rather weak expression for what you suggest we might be condoning…

        Side note: I’m not taking a position here… just trying to bring some clarity to the discussion.

        • robulus says:

          I don’t think any supernatural or mystical beliefs are required for this to be a problematic determination. The issue is when the embryo/foetus attains personhood and aquires the rights we grant to all persons.

          I think Jesse poses a very acceptable determination of personhood, and one that is tacitly accepted in the way we regulate abortion in the west, but it is arbitrary none the less.

          One could argue, and many do, that once fertilisation occurs there is a unique genome, and its appropriate to grant personhood right there and then. If I was a Right-to-Lifer (and I’m not) that would be where I would ground the debate, the religious angle just makes it easy to dismiss.

          Others argue that personhood only occurs at birth. It’s all perfectly contentious without any to need to bring God into it.

        • Antinous / Moderator says:

          You don’t believe in a soul – others do.

          Even those who believe in souls may belief that ensoulment takes place anywhere from conception to some time after birth.

        • Terry says:

          “Belief really is the core here.”

          Belief is ALWAYS the core. The confusion comes from so many people erroneously thinking that belief is not a integral component of science.

        • Jesse M. says:

          Belief really is the core here. You don’t believe in a soul – others do. For pro-life advocates, the question of abortion hinges on when life begins, not on a specific developmental stage of the fetus.

          I agree that belief/nonbelief in a supernatural soul is critical here (note that even for those who believe in such a soul, there are some Jewish and Christian traditions which use Biblical verses to dispute the idea that the fetus has a soul immediately after conception). I do wish pro-lifers would make this more clear and talk about “when ensoulment begins” rather than the more vague “when life begins”, which makes it sound like a quasi-scientific question rather than a purely religious one (I’m not aware of any scientific definition of ‘life’ that would say a zygote is a life but an individual sperm or unfertilized egg cell is not).

          Also, I marvel at the moral gymnastics involved in waving away the 1.4% of abortions performed after 20 weeks. “Morally troubling” is a rather weak expression for what you suggest we might be condoning…

          Like I said, many of those cases would be ones where the health of the mother is threatened. But since you’re accusing me of “moral gymnastics”, maybe I should say something about my own moral beliefs, which are pretty idiosyncratic and not representative of most pro-choice types. Basically, since I’m a transhumanist and a believer in naturalistic evolution, I don’t believe that humans should be seen as morally “special” relative to other species merely by virtue of human DNA. If we want a moral scheme that isn’t intrinsically “human supremacist” but which still lines up with the intuition that human life generally has greater moral value than that of other animals, it makes sense to me that it would be based on some notion of the greater complexity of human consciousness (so that if genetic engineering or A.I. were ever to result in a nonhuman being with a similar level of mental complexity, they would deserve the same moral consideration we give to adult humans). A late-term human fetus no doubt has some form of consciousness, but I have my doubts that it’s really much different from the type of consciousness that, say, a late-term chimp fetus would have (and both are probably less rich than the consciousness of those who have already been born since there isn’t a lot of sensory stimulation in the womb), to me it’s not the same as killing an adult or older child.

          Another weird twist to my moral view is that since I’m strongly inclined to believe in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, I tend to think of the harmfulness of killing more in terms of the suffering caused to those who cared about the one killed, and not to see killing as actually all that harmful to the one who was killed themselves! After all, if you give me a quick and painless death, my consciousness continues in other branches of the multiverse where you didn’t kill me, and in the branches where I was killed I won’t know the difference. My friends and family, on the other hand, will experience a lot of suffering in those branches where I was killed. So, in a way I think the wrongness of murder is mostly a matter of the fact that humans are a social species who have lots of emotional connections to other humans, and killing one causes suffering to all the others in their network. The fetus has no one who really “knows” it on a personal level, so if the mother chooses to abort it I don’t think it’ll cause the same level of suffering to others as the death of someone out in the world, even a young baby whose brain might not be that different. Anyway, I’m aware that this is a fairly unusual way of thinking about why killing is wrong so I’m not really trying to convince anyone else to think like me on this, but it makes sense to me.

          • robulus says:

            “I agree that belief/nonbelief in a supernatural soul is critical here”

            I don’t think it is critical at all. It’s about the status of personhood.

            You’ve made a declaration that in your view, personhood is attained when there is sufficient neural activity. At that point there is a person whose rights need to be considered, previously there was no person.

            Like I said, I agree that this is a practical guage.

            However, if we’ve decided that neural activity is the measure of personhood, what about the person in a coma with no neural activity, is it OK to allow them to die, because they are no longer a person? A lot of people will answer yes, but if you ask “what if there was a small chance they could regain brain function?” the question becomes much more problematic.

            Of course, with an embryo, we know there is a very high chance it will attain normal brain function.

            So “ensoulment” doesn’t need to be a confounding factor at all (although I’m sure it generally is), this is still a difficult question in secular ethics.

          • Jesse M. says:

            I don’t think it is critical at all. It’s about the status of personhood.

            Since there’s no such thing as “proof” in ethics, I’m not trying to say that anyone who disbelieves in a soul should automatically agree with me about abortion. It was more that I was making the empirical claim that, in fact, there is a very strong correlation between being pro-life in all cases and believing in a supernatural soul; I think you would find only a very small fraction of the population who are opposed to abortion in all cases (even for the earliest zygotes where the brain hasn’t formed at all) and yet don’t believe in any form of supernatural soul (and the fraction would probably be even smaller if you looked at people who not only don’t believe in a supernatural soul but also don’t believe the human form was blessed as uniquely special by a creator-God).

            You’ve made a declaration that in your view, personhood is attained when there is sufficient neural activity. At that point there is a person whose rights need to be considered, previously there was no person.

            I didn’t talk about “personhood” because I don’t find the concept useful, it seems too absolutist to me. As I said in my previous post, I believe in a graded moral attitude towards different creatures (or towards possible future nonbiological intelligences) based on their mental complexity–killing a human is worse than killing a chimp which is worse than killing a dog which is worse than killing a lizard, etc. So, in my view there isn’t some clear dividing line between “persons” who deserve full human rights and “nonpersons” who deserve no moral consideration at all. But before the synapses form in a fetus’ brain, it’s not just that there wouldn’t be “sufficient” neural activity, as I understand it there would be no information-processing going on in the brain at all, or at least no more so than in non-neural tissue (perhaps the interactions between cells in my liver or in a plant’s tissue could give rise to some very simple form of conscious experience, who knows). So, in my view a fetus before the growth of synapses in the brain would have the same moral status as a species without a central nervous system, like plants or jellyfish.

            However, if we’ve decided that neural activity is the measure of personhood, what about the person in a coma with no neural activity, is it OK to allow them to die, because they are no longer a person? A lot of people will answer yes, but if you ask “what if there was a small chance they could regain brain function?” the question becomes much more problematic.

            Of course, with an embryo, we know there is a very high chance it will attain normal brain function.

            I think you’re conflating two different types of “potential”–in the case of a coma victim you’re talking about the potential to recreate a consciousness and personality that has already existed in the past (and which has formed relationships with other people who may miss the coma victim and who would suffer if the victim can’t be brought back), while in the case of a fetus you’re talking about a “potential” to create a totally new consciousness that has never existed in the past. In a sense, every cell in my body has the second type of “potential” thanks to cloning technology, but I don’t think anyone would argue that we have a moral obligation to allow my cells to fulfill that potential. The fact that the transformation of a preconscious fetus to a conscious adult is “natural” whereas the transformation of a cell to an adult via cloning is “artificial” doesn’t seem relevant to me, especially since I don’t believe that “natural” processes were handcrafted by a creator-God who assigned them some special moral status. And even if you do assign a special status to “natural” potentials over “artificial” ones, if you have a sperm cell on the verge of fertilizing an egg cell but which hasn’t done so quite yet, this sperm-egg pair would have the natural potential to become a conscious adult in the future, and yet even the most vehement opponent of contraception would probably not argue that placing a barrier between the sperm and egg before fertilization can happen is equivalent to murder.

      • lark61 says:

        I don’t think this comment is entirely accurate. Being as I’m currently with fetus I get little updates on a weekly basis on this topic. The nervous system begins forming at about four weeks. The neural tube begins forming at five weeks and synapses begin developing around the sixth week. Response to tactile stimuli may also begin around this time and reflexes kick in, ie the woman can’t feel it but the embryo begins moving – which requires functioning nerve cells. Brain waves can begin being measured around the eighth week and around nine weeks the (now) fetus can respond to loud noises. At 12 weeks all of the nerve cells are formed and will simply grow and branch after this. At 20 weeks all cutaneous surfaces have their receptors but response to stimuli begins long before 20 weeks. I’m not inclined to debate the whole abortion thing because I think it’s a personal choice and shouldn’t be regulated by government in the first place

        • Jesse M. says:

          lark61, did you read the links I provided in post #9? They say quite clearly that synapses in the brain don’t form until 20 weeks or later, long after the nervous system itself starts to form. For example, the first link has a section called “Development of Synaptic Connection Among Neurons” which says The process of synapse formation probably starts in the mid or late second trimester and continues during the life of the individual. The second link deals with the issue of fetal movement, and points out that this does not imply any brain function:

          Also around the sixth week, faint electrical activity can be detected from the fetal nervous system. Some pro-life commentators say this means that brain activity begins during the sixth week, but, according to Dr. Martha Herbert, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, there is little research to support that claim. Most neurologists assume that electrical activity in the first trimester represents random neuron firings as nerves connect–basically, tiny spasms.

          The fetus’s heart begins to beat, and by about the twentieth week the fetus can kick. Kicking is probably a spasm, too, at least initially, because the fetal cerebral cortex, the center of voluntary brain function, is not yet “wired,” its neurons still nonfunctional. (Readings from 20- to 22-week-old premature babies who died at birth show only very feeble EEG signals.) From the twenty-second week to the twenty-fourth week, connections start to be established between the cortex and the thalamus, the part of the brain that translates thoughts into nervous-system commands. Fetal consciousness seems physically “impossible” before these connections form, says Fisk, of the Imperial College School of Medicine.

          Finally, the third link discusses the issue of brain waves, and points out the falsity of claims by abortion opponents that brain waves can be seen only a few weeks in (I suspect that you got your claim that “brain waves can begin being measured around the eight week” from some such anti-abortion source). The claim of brain waves 8-10 weeks in seems to be based on a paper by two researchers from Finland both named Bergstrom:

          They found “electrical activity” in fetal brainstem cells from 10 weeks of pregnancy (56 days after fertilization) on, but that doesn’t mean much. An EEG involves measuring varying electrical potentials across a dipole, or separated positive and negative charges. Any living cell has an electrical potential across its membrane, and any living structure is a dipole, which explains why people have been able to put electrodes on plants, hook them up to EEG machines, and get “evidence” that plants have feelings. But this has nothing to do with “brain waves,” which are a nontechnical term for a particular kind of varying potentials produced by certain brain structures that don’t even exist in an embryo and associated with consciousness and dreaming as well as the regulation of bodily functions.

          The Bergstroms did not find electrical activity of a kind that had anything to do with “brain function” until 84 days (12 weeks) of gestation, or 70 days after conception. The activity then recorded was not in any way similar to what is seen on a normal EEG, which includes what people call “brain waves.” Rather, the Bergstroms stimulated the fetal brain stem and were able to record random bursts of electrical activity which looked exactly like the bursts they got from the fetal leg muscles when they were stimulated.

          When people, including physicians, talk about “brain waves” and “brain activity” they are referring to organized activity in the cortex. While no embryo or fetus has ever been found to have “brain waves,” extensive EEG studies have been done on premature babies. A very good summary of their findings can be found in “Pain and its effects in the human neonate and fetus,” a review article (often cited by “pro-lifers” writing about fetal pain, but not about brain development) by K.J.S. Anand, a leading researcher on pain in newborns, and P.R. Hickey, published in NEJM:

          Functional maturity of the cerebral cortex is suggested by fetal and neonatal electroencephalographic patterns…First, intermittent electroencephalograpic bursts in both cerebral hemispheres are first seen at 20 weeks gestation; they become sustained at 22 weeks and bilaterally synchronous at 26 to 27 weeks.

          There are reasons, based on the physics of the EEG, why this has to be so. Remember, an EEG involves measuring varying electrical potential across a dipole, or separated charges. To get scalp or surface potentials from the cortex requires three things: neurons, dendrites, and axons, with synapses between them. Since these requirements are not present in the human cortex before 20-24 weeks of gestation, it is not possible to record “brain waves” prior to 20-24 weeks. Period. End of story. Scientists do not attempt to find electrocortical activity in embryos and fetuses because they know more about the physical structure of the developing human brain than they did in 1963.

          For one more link on the subject of when brain function begins, you might check out Fetal Pain: A Systematic Multidisciplinary Review of the Evidence which says that Thalamocortical fibers begin appearing between 23 to 30 weeks’ gestational age, while electroencephalography suggests the capacity for functional pain perception in preterm neonates probably does not exist before 29 or 30 weeks.. I really don’t think there is any scientific debate about the fact that synaptic connections between neurons in the brain don’t begin to form until late in the second trimester; if you think there are any reputable scientific sources that suggest otherwise, please give some links or references.

          • Anonymous says:

            Neither you or Dr. Scheibel fully understands what a synapse is. Not shocking, since his specialty seems to be psychology and not neurobiology (one hopes).

            If the embryo is capable of any muscular movement whatsoever, then there must be conduction of electrical potential among neurons. This requires the establishment of synapses, with measurable electrical activity across the membrane. This happens in humans at less than 2 weeks with the development of the neural ridge and notochord, but it is just as true of chickens, frogs, spiders and sea urchins at this stage of embryonic development.

            The synaptic connections he is speaking of forming at 2nd or 3rd trimester probably refer to the formation of complex branching Pyramidal neurons, but I can’t be sure. In any case, operating synapses are essential to any functional neural communication, period.

            I don’t have any input on your resultant moral inquiry as to whether an electrical action potential chemically communicated across a voltage-triggered ion gate in an echinoderm is more or less of a miracle than that in a human embryo. But I recommend you to a High School Biology textbook, and also that you check and diversify your sources.

  19. Anonymous says:

    @Eric Ragle – it may be possible to teach yourself and your kids to have better eyesight. I tried the method suggested on this website with good results. You have to keep working at it, though.
    http://gettingstronger.org/rehabilitation/

    (I have no connection to the author – just like the site. )

  20. Anonymous says:

    Why do some pro choice people react to observed science in the way that global warming deniers do? eg alleging conspiracy and ‘junk science’. Inconvenient truths?

  21. Aeiluindae says:

    While I lean on the pro-choice side, I feel we are basically doing our best with the (little) information we have. Of course, new information and research have to be unbiased and thorough, but once we get to that knowledge, and we inexorably will sooner or later, we might have to deal with it, no matter what we find.

    I tend to lean toward pro-life, just to be on the safe side. I think that an argument can maybe be made for abortions early on in fetal development. Later on, you start to run into things like the article talks about, and abortions that occur after the time when the fetus would be viable if a premature birth happened or because the child is disabled are simply abhorrent to me. However, there are other options (contraception (both pre and post coital), adoption) that don’t raise ethical issues (unless you’re Catholic) that abortions probably don’t need to be common, no matter your moral stance, except in exceptional circumstances.

  22. Anonymous says:

    My 5 year old son has repeatedly described what his life was like before he was “born.” He said it was like being at the Doctor’s office waiting for an appointment, except there’s no one else there. I tend to believe him, the kid has a mind like a steel trap!

  23. Sekino says:

    Very neat topic! Coincidentally, just last night I was listening to a science radio show podcast (Quirks and Quarks) and one episode had info on how fetuses and infants became familiar with their parents’ language(s).

    I’m French and my husband is English so we were happy to learn that hearing the two languages in the womb wouldn’t cause language confusion but would rather make our girl more familiar with both (since they sound different). I’ve started reading more French books out loud (since I don’t speak much French during the day), just in case. It feels a bit silly but I need the practice for later bedtime stories anyways ;)

    • Terry says:

      I took a few courses on this in college, and if I remember correctly, the earlier you expose children to multiple languages the better. Since they are so very good at acquiring language, very young children can acquire multiple languages just as easily as they can a single language. Learning a language is only difficult for adults. Children do it without trying or even thinking about it.

      If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of language (and are willing to work for it), I’d recommend reading some of Noam Chomsky’s stuff.

  24. Anonymous says:

    I’m “Anonymous” because I’m too lazy to create an account.

    Funchy, as someone mentioned earlier, these are very late term fetuses. Our senses develop before we are born. This is irrefutable.

    As for knowing how our senses work and how we can say we are “smelling when we can’t move air” or “reaction to light isn’t seeing,” these are arguments as weak as the arguments anti-choice or intelligent design nuts construct; easily answered with a 5 second google query.

    Smelling is a sense facilitated by receptors built for detecting chemicals. It doesn’t matter if it’s in fluid or air. As for where these receptors come from, well, a lot of our internal functions are regulated by chemical signals. When we are an organ in our mother, the instant we are conceived, we are awash with chemical instructions. Getting out nose to work is no different.

    As far as eyes, as the article states, child are born with developed eyes. Not perfect eye sight, that takes years of development, but we see none the less, and recognise the basic arrangement of the human face (and that’s about it) which is about all we can expect from something that can barely process the noise of light it has never experienced. Sight, to a newborn, is like watching an old analog TV, trying to tune to a station too far away. Static, confusion, and every once in a while, a glimpse of a shape the newborn can comprehend. Slowly, as the brain makes sense of it all, the eyes develop, and the child can coordinate focus, the picture becomes clearer and clearer.

    IF A BABY can respond to faces at birth, albeit in the most primitive way (locking on to faces, following them, and nothing else) that means the eyes were developed before the child was birthed.

    WHAT THIS ARTICLE IS SAYING, is that because of these simple truths, and because it is also true that repetition of singles develops neural pathways, then, it is possible to stimulate children, in utero, with sound and light, to develop these senses early and, potentially, protect them from failure. It’s important for a fraction of a percent of children, and helps others develop these senses days earlier than their peers.

  25. jsmill says:

    Hm. I think the arguments pointing toward some kind of spectrum are the strongest.

    I would say that I lean pro-life, but only because we are all rather ignorant not only of what might constitute morally culpable “lives” but even of the basic brain functions of fetuses.

    Given such ignorance, I think it better to lean to the cautious side– abortions may or may not be murder, but since there is some uncertainty, wherever feasible we should lean to the side against them.

    Legally speaking, “this is my body I can do what I want” doesn’t seem to rest on other legal precedents. It’s your body, but put certain drugs in them and if you’re caught, you’ll be arrested– and not for harm to someone else or tax evasion on the purchase.

    (Some will say, well, drug laws ought to be repealed, too. And maybe they should. But “ought” and “legally speaking” are often two different things. Sadly.)

    I’m not saying that women shouldn’t have access to abortion. I’m saying that the my-body argument doesn’t seem to fly in legal terms.

    I’d also like to point out that women do have access to birth control, including RU-486, and that both of those are less expensive and– generally speaking– less dangerous than an abortion. So is requiring your partner to wear a condom. In the United States a man is not free to rid himself of a child at any time that he pleases– whether through an induced abortion or by skipping out on child support payments. Why should a woman be allowed to do so?

    Some, at hearing me say that, may cry foul. But my understanding is that the pro-choice position is couched in terms of a woman’s autonomy– her ability to act freely and without impediment…the implication being as freely as a man can conduct himself. It is about the liberation of the woman from both men and her own biology. That, at least, is what the debate grew out of historically.

    So to me it seems odd that a woman must have autonomy– is free to rid herself of a zygote, fetus, child, what have you, as she pleases. But the man is at the mercy of the woman’s choice– he cannot demand an abortion, despite legally sharing in the consequences of birth or abortion. The woman may suffer for nine months of pregnancy. But after that, US law requires that the child be an equal burden, equitably divided.

    Abortion in the cases of rape, incest, or medical danger to the mother make sense to me. But why would you blithely use it as a form of birth control? I can understand having it available. But why fight to make it common?

    Last thought:

    People sometimes make the case that poverty ridden babies– those that would be born to mothers who are unable to provide an “adequate”(?) standard of living– are better off aborted.

    To me, this is as philosophically puzzling as suicide. How is it better for the child if the child didn’t exist? How can non-existence benefit a non-existent being?

  26. Anonymous says:

    @ Jesse M – I’m an embryologist/developmental biologist, and I taught neuroanatomy at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons back in the 1990s. Your citations contradict each other. The first one suggests that synapses don’t form until around the twentieth week. The second one, after speaking about the sixth week, says that “electrical activity in the first trimester represents random neuron firings as nerves connect–basically, tiny spasms.” Nerves “connect” by making synapses, and “spasms” are what happen when synapses fire. Indeed, the brain organizes itself by creating an excess of synapses early on, and then pruning away unnecessary ones, largely depending upon how often they fire.

    This is essentially the same process that continues well after birth, and it’s very pronounced in the cerebellum, for example, as a toddler learns to walk. My point here — independent of taking any stance on the abortion issue — is that you seem to be drawing some rather arbitrary lines about what is and isn’t important, while the science suggests a more subtle process of development.

    • Jesse M. says:

      I’m an embryologist/developmental biologist, and I taught neuroanatomy at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons back in the 1990s.

      Should I assume that means you are knowledgeable about the specific question of the timing of synaptic growth in the human embryo? If so, can you discuss what you know about this issue, maybe with some accompanying links or references, rather than just trying to find inconsistencies in the links I gave? Your criticism in this case is rather questionable:

      Your citations contradict each other. The first one suggests that synapses don’t form until around the twentieth week. The second one, after speaking about the sixth week, says that “electrical activity in the first trimester represents random neuron firings as nerves connect–basically, tiny spasms.” Nerves “connect” by making synapses, and “spasms” are what happen when synapses fire.

      The first source was specifically talking about synapses in the brain (and I always specified that that’s what I was talking about too), whereas muscle spasms would require neuromuscular synapses, perhaps along with synapses in the spinal cord, but I wouldn’t think they’d require signals from the brain. Synapses in different parts of the nervous system don’t all develop at the same time, and in fact they do develop earlier in the spinal cord than the cerebral cortex. Also, to have any unified brain function you presumably need nerve fibers connecting different areas–the last link I gave in post 39 (a review paper on what’s known about the fetal capacity for pain from the Journal of the American Medical Association) mentioned for example that “Fetal awareness of noxious stimuli requires functional thalamocortical connections. Thalamocortical fibers begin appearing between 23 to 30 weeks’ gestational age”. This paper also mentions (in the second paragraph of the section ‘Neuroanatomy and Development’) that “Sensory receptors and spinal cord synapses required for nociception develop earlier than the thalamocortical pathways required for conscious perception of pain”, backing up what I said before about spinal cord synapses developing earlier (the article also features a nice table showing the timing of the development of different elements of pain perception pathways).

      Finally, I came across this pdf of some senate testimony on fetal pain from a Pediatrics Professor who I would guess holds a pro-life position (based on the emphasis on the fetal capacity for pain and on the fact that the page is hosted on the website of the ‘Christian Medical & Dental Associations’), but the page still supports the idea that synapse formation doesn’t really get going in the brain until around 20 weeks, saying on page 4 that “The cerebral cortex starts to form at about 8-10 weeks of human gestation, (Figure 4) although early cortical neurons have few axonal or dendritic connections. Maturation and differentiation of these neurons occurs in the second trimester and the sub-plate zone is formed at around 15 weeks. Massive increases in dendritic arborization and synaptogenesis begin at 18-20 weeks of gestation, with sub-plate neurons serving as a signaling station for axonal connections from the sub-cortical areas.”

      Do you disagree with any of the quoted statements in italics?

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