How Kids See the World Depends a Lot on Genetics

Baby in eye gaze study

Caption: Child watches video while researchers track his eye movements.
Credit: Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis

From the time we are born, most of us humans closely watch the world around us, paying special attention to people’s faces and expressions. Now, for the first time, an NIH-funded team has shown that the ways in which children look at faces and many other things are strongly influenced by the genes they’ve inherited from their parents.

The findings come from experiments that tracked the eye movements of toddlers watching videos of other kids or adult caregivers. The experiments showed that identical twins—who share the same genes and the same home environment—spend almost precisely the same proportion of time looking at faces, even when watching different videos. And when identical twins watched the same video, they tended to look at the same thing at almost exactly the same time! In contrast, fraternal twins—who shared the same home environment, but, on average, shared just half of their genes—had patterns of eye movement that were far less similar.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that the visual behaviors most affected in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—attention to another person’s eyes and mouth—were those that also appeared to be the most heavily influenced by genetics. The discovery makes an important connection between two well-known features of ASD: a strong hereditary component and poor eye contact with other people.

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Brain Scans Show Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Unhappy baby

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For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), early diagnosis is critical to allow for possible interventions at a time when the brain is most amenable to change. But that’s been tough to implement for a simple reason: the symptoms of ASD, such as communication difficulties, social deficits, and repetitive behaviors, often do not show up until a child turns 2 or even 3 years old.

Now, an NIH-funded research team has news that may pave the way for earlier detection of ASD. The key is to shift the diagnostic focus from how kids act to how their brains grow. In their brain imaging study, the researchers found that, compared to other children, youngsters with ASD showed unusually rapid brain growth from infancy to age 2. In fact, the growth differences were already evident by their first birthdays, well before autistic behaviors typically emerge.

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Are E-cigarettes Leading More Kids to Smoke?

Cigarettes vs. E-Cigarettes

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Today, thanks to decades of educational efforts about the serious health consequences of inhaled tobacco, fewer young people than ever smoke cigarettes in the United States. So, it’s interesting that a growing of number of middle and high school kids are using e-cigarettes—electronic devices that vaporize flavored liquid that generally contains nicotine.

E-cigarettes come with their own health risks, including lung inflammation, asthma, and respiratory infections. But their supporters argue that “vaping,” as it’s often called, might provide an option that would help young people steer clear of traditional cigarettes and the attendant future risks of lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and other serious health conditions. Now, a new NIH-funded study finds that this is—pardon the pun—mostly a pipe dream.

Analyzing the self-reported smoking behaviors of thousands of schoolkids nationwide, researchers found no evidence that the availability of e-cigarettes has served to accelerate the decline in youth smoking. In fact, the researchers concluded the opposite: the popularity of e-cigarettes has led more kids—not fewer—to get hooked on nicotine, which meets all criteria for being an addictive substance.

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Peanut Allergy: Early Exposure Is Key to Prevention

Kids and peanuts

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With peanut allergy on the rise in the United States, you’ve probably heard parents strategizing about ways to keep their kids from developing this potentially dangerous condition. But is it actually possible to prevent peanut allergy, and, if so, how do you go about doing it?

There’s an entirely new strategy emerging now! A group representing 26 professional organizations, advocacy groups, and federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has just issued new clinical guidelines aimed at preventing peanut allergy [1]. The guidelines suggest that parents should introduce most babies to peanut-containing foods around the time they begin eating other solid foods, typically 4 to 6 months of age. While early introduction is especially important for kids at particular risk for developing allergies, it is also recommended that high-risk infants—those with a history of severe eczema and/or egg allergy—undergo a blood or skin-prick test before being given foods containing peanuts. The test results can help to determine how, or even if, peanuts should be introduced in the youngsters’ diets.

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Morning Sickness Associated with Lower Miscarriage Risk

Morning sickness

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During the first trimester of pregnancy, many women experience what’s commonly known as “morning sickness.” As distressing as this nausea and vomiting can be, a team of NIH researchers has gathered some of the most convincing evidence to date that such symptoms may actually be a sign of something very positive: a lower risk of miscarriage.

In fact, when the researchers studied a group of women who had suffered one or two previous miscarriages, they found that the women who felt nauseous during their subsequent pregnancies were 50 to 75 percent less likely to miscarry than those without nausea. While it’s not yet exactly clear what’s going on, the findings lend support to the notion that morning sickness may arise from key biological factors that reflect an increased likelihood of a successful pregnancy.

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