Monday, August 15, 2016

What is a preliminary study in psychology, and why do babies twitch while they sleep?

Mark Blumberg, Ph.D., of the University of Iowa, received a 5 million dollar MERIT Award from the National Institutes of Health for his work studying brain activity in young organisms. First, congrats to Dr. Blumberg, and second, I bring this up because of a press release I read this week from the University of Iowa (UI). 

What is preliminary research?
Preliminary research is where all good research starts. It is “pre”, before, more research is done. It is a starting point towards answering a question. But, just a starting point. It is the first few peer reviewed papers of many to come.
Dr. Blumberg said in the UI press release, “You would think that when animals are asleep, they’re not going to have that much brain activity, and then when they wake up, the activity will be really robust, because they’re awake,” he said. “You would think the brain would reflect the behavior. But we’ve seen exactly the opposite.”
With this observation and many questions about early development, Blumberg and his colleagues are looking into why babies twitch while they sleep. He first looked at baby rats, and now is doing observational studies of human babies with support from the Gates Foundation. 
Initially it was thought that babies twitched during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep due to dreaming. But Blumberg speculates that there is a developmental component, that sleep twitching may help the development of the infant’s nervous system. 
For example, infants that are learning to hold their heads up show more neck twitches than infants that have more control over their heads. The thought is that twitches help the growing nervous system test the electrical infrastructure and prepare for the next developmental achievement.  
“Preliminary” leads to press speculation
Further along in the press release we see clinical speculation. I bring this up not to bad mouth this researcher but as a warning to the reader. Often in press releases, and especially in the title of them, the study information is exaggerated into what is hoped to be found in the future. In this case we have this:

Blumberg’s research could be important in understanding neurodevelopment disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia.

The research could also be used to help people who have suffered from strokes or amputations to regain control of their nervous system as their brain restructures itself.

Please note, the research into baby twitching is being done, there is no research being conducted concerning autism, schizophrenia, strokes, or amputations.

I have talked with researchers that are surprised by the speculations made by university or corporate press releases. The writer of the press release, often not a scientist, hopes the press release will get circulated around the world by newspapers and bloggers. The goal of a press release is to get noticed and to shed a little light back on the university or corporation. 

So, keep a critical eye when reading press releases, or articles written based on press releases.

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