Study of babies' twitches may provide insights into neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and schizophrenia

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published July 22, 2016

Key Takeaways

Sleeping, twitching babies, it seems, may hold the key to a better understanding of sensorimotor development, according to researchers at the University of Iowa.

Sleep twitches are the small jerks and spasms that occur during sleep, and for 20 years, Mark Blumberg, PhD, professor, department of psychological and brain sciences, F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor, and director, The DeLTA Center, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IO, has focused his attention and studies on exactly why they occur.

According to Dr. Blumberg, and Greta Sokoloff, research scientist, the sleep twitches that happen during rapid eye movement sleep (REM) are associated with sensorimotor development. When a sleeping newborn twitches, they believe it is a manifestation of the body activating circuits in the brain and teaching the infant about his limbs and how to move them.

Studying sleep twitches may help elucidate early motor and sensorimotor development, which in turn, could lead to better understanding of neurodevelopmental disorders including autism and schizophrenia.

“Although often overlooked, there is a substantial problem with the sensorimotor system in these disorders,” said Dr. Blumberg.

For their most recent, ongoing study, Drs. Blumberg, Sokoloff, and colleagues enrolled infants aged 2 weeks to 18 months brought in to the lab by their parents once a month. The infants are videotaped while they sleep. As an added component of the study, an online questionnaire is distributed to the parents, which is comprised of questions about the child’s sleep and wake behavior. Questionnaires are sent out monthly to parents who are willing to participate.

“The goal is to collect vast amounts of data and sift through what is reliable later,” said Dr. Blumberg. “It’s all very early in the process, but if we can get hundreds or thousands of respondents across the globe, we believe that we will be in a better position to detect developmental patterns.”

He explained that with the earliest data, they have begun to see patterns and associations between infant neck twitches during sleep and their ability to support the head while awake.

“Once the infants are able to support their head while they are awake, the proportion of neck twitches to other types of twitches goes down,” Sokoloff explained. “We are looking for relationships like these where we can potentially use twitches to predict the onset of new motor skills and perhaps, in time, detect developmental problems.”

Another pattern Drs. Blumberg and Sokoloff have observed is the association between distal limb twitches, in the wrists and fingers, which seem to occur when the infants begin reaching with their hands and fingers. The ultimate goal of their study, according to Dr. Blumberg, is to show associations between sleep twitches and motor skills exhibited by the infants when they are awake.

This study is supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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