Probiotic breast milk

US Department of Agriculture

In the past, it was thought that a fetus was sterile while in the womb and that a baby’s first food, breast milk, was also free of microbes. Recent research turns this idea on its head as Beth Skwarecki presents in a fascinating DoubleXScience post.

“Babies are born without a fully developed intestinal mucosa, and need interaction with bacteria to basically jump start their immune system,” says Lisa Funkhouser, who co-authored a paper with Seth Bordenstein last month on the many ways mothers across the animal kingdom transmit microbes to offspring.

What’s most fascinating about the microbes in breast milk and those that a fetus harbors before birth is where they originate. The idea is still in its, um, infancy, but evidence is accumulating that cells in the bloodstream pick up microbes from the intestine and transport them to destinations in milk-producing breast tissue … and across the placenta to the developing fetus.

These microbes make up the ground level floor of a baby’s gut ecosystem–preparing the immune system for future invaders. There’s a ton of interesting science jam-packed into this article–check it out.


A plethora of posts (and a steminist profile)

Study: Pollutants may delay human pregnancies
A new study by Germaine Buck Louis and colleagues at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences took a novel approach to exploring how environmental pollutants may impact the time it takes for couples to conceive. Continue reading….

Study: Facial expressions of intense joy and anguish are indistinguishable
Studies looking at how people perceive emotions often rely on stimuli that look like floating faces. What has largely been missing in these studies is the role of the body in emotional processing. A fascinating new study published in Science used a clever experimental paradigm to tease apart how we use visual input from bodies more than faces to determine whether someone is having a very good or very bad day. Continue reading…

Project ARISE brings scientists and mobile labs into biology classrooms
Project ARISE (Advancing Rhode Island Science Education) connects high school biology teachers with Brown University scientists to enrich science education for Rhode Island high school students. Continue reading….

Play a game and help scientists map the connectome with EyeWire
Some people do jigsaw puzzles during their holiday breaks. This year you can help solve a different kind of puzzle by mapping a single neuron’s path through a mouse’s retina—right from the comfort of your couch. Continue reading…

Scratching at the neuroscience of itch
It may seem obvious that there must be at least one type of neuron that responds to things that make us itchy like a wool sweater or an allergic reaction to a new lotion. Until recently, however, scientists were unsure whether there were neurons that specifically process itchy stimuli or whether these neurons also process a related but very different sensation: pain. Continue reading…

My STEMINIST profile
The STEMINIST blog recently posted a profile about me.  To read more about how I got interested in science and my advice to other women in science, see the profile here.

Unintended consequences: could cuts to Medicaid dental coverage lead to more preterm births?

Pregnant woman at a WIC clinic in Virginia. Photo by Ken Hammond (USDA).

States are slashing Medicaid benefits as an attempt to get ballooning health care costs under control. As the New York Times reports, dental coverage for adults is often one of the first items on the chopping block. Now, in about half of the states, dental coverage from Medicaid will only cover pain relief and emergency services. Time will tell if shifting dental care to already overburdened ERs will actually save states money. A study looking at pediatric patients with dental problems found reimbursement rates from emergency rooms were ten times the predicted cost of preventative care. There is already a shift toward more patients using the ER for dental emergencies. From 2006 to 2009 the number rose by 16%. This is a prime example of an unintended consequence.

But when I read the NYTimes piece, I thought of another unintended consequence–one that could impact future generations. This is because I knew there was an association between gum disease and preterm birth (probably something that stuck in my brain from all the reading I did while pregnant). In fact, a pregnant woman with periodontal gum disease is 4.3 times more likely to have a preterm baby than is a healthy pregnant woman. [In one sad case, the death of a stillborn baby was linked to bacteria from the mother’s gum disease]. One study found that treatment of pregnant women with gum disease prevented this adverse result–but only if the treatment was successful at getting rid of the disease. Some states offer dental coverage for pregnant women. But many others do not, and as the study cited above indicates, this coverage may be too late for preventing early births. Preterm birth is a risk factor for a host of issues–from increased infant mortality to cerebral palsy to developmental delays.

The Affordable Care Act requires insurers to cover dental care for kids and also includes funds for opening more dental clinics and for public awareness campaigns about preventing oral illnesses. The ACA does not, however, force insurers to offer dental coverage to adults. According to a Senate report from earlier this year, 42% of Americans —130 million people–don’t have any form of dental insurance.  Given these numbers, it may be unsurprising that a recent study found that over 47% of adult Americans have some form of periodontal disease. If we want to prevent all of the complications associated with gum disease (and the health care dollars associated with these problems), we should be expanding dental insurance for preventative care. And such coverage shouldn’t be limited to children and women of childbearing age. This is blatantly obvious when we consider evidence from even more studies, which show that gum disease puts adults with poor dental health care at risk for other conditions, including heart attacks and pancreatic cancer. Now I really need to schedule that cleaning…