Why do mothers get a kick out of babies – and other big questions
Fundamental research about in-utero gymnastics, bone health and ‘how water works’ are being explored by three Irish scientists with the help of European funding
“We know that the baby does need to move a certain amount for healthy skeletal development but what we don’t know is how much movement is needed,” says Dr Niamh Nowlan
When a baby in the womb kicks, those flutters, rolls and even big hoofs in the belly can be reassuring and fun for the parents. But is there more to it? Are those developing limbs getting a workout to develop healthily?
Those in-utero gymnastics appear to be important for the baby’s developing skeleton, explains Dr Niamh Nowlan, who is looking at how the mechanical forces of those prenatal movements affect the joints.
“In very severe cases where the baby has a neuromuscular disorder and doesn’t move at all, that can have a really big effect on the bones and on the joints,” she says. “Also, if there is reduced fluid in the womb or the baby is in a breech position and can’t move about as much, there’s a higher risk of developing hip dysplasia, or ‘clicky hip’. So we know that the baby does need to move a certain amount for healthy skeletal development, but what we don’t know is how much movement is needed.”
Dr Nowlan is one of three Irish researchers who have been just announced as recipients of prestigious European Research Council “starting” grants. Such five-year grants, which are awarded to individuals to pursue fundamental research, can be worth up to €2 million each.
Dr Nowlan, who is from Rathfarnham, started her studies in mechanobiology in Trinity College Dublin and is now at Imperial College London, where she is looking to get a better handle on the forces that shape growing bones in the womb.
“I am going to be working with a [gene] knockout mouse where the embryos don’t move in the womb at all, which is an extreme case, and I have a particular interest in looking at the hip joints,” she says. “I’ll also be using modelling techniques to figure out what are the important stresses and stimuli makes the joint shape form, whether it be correctly or abnormally.”
And while she is hoping to get more insight on joint development from the lab studies, she also wants to see what’s going on in real time in the human womb. In a separate project, Dr Nowlan is developing wearable technology that a pregnant woman could wear to find out more about the baby’s movements.
“At the moment we can’t track foetal movement over time – we can only see the baby moving when the mum has an ultrasound or MRI,” she says. “So we are designing the device so the mum could wear it over the second half of the pregnancy and we could get a very good idea of how the baby is moving.”
While forming a skeleton is important, keeping it in good balance is key to bone health in adulthood. Your skeleton is far from inert, explains Dr David Hoey at the University of Limerick, whose new European grant is to look into potential new approaches for treating bone imbalances such as osteoporosis.