October 27, 2014

Saul Schanberg's Weird Results Changed the Way the World Treats Premature Babies

This week I read an article about others who gave their best, but it didn't seem to matter.  In fact, some thought that the tax-payer funded research was a waste of time and money.  The research they did seemed irrelevant to anyone until years later when their research started saving lives. 

In 1979, a scientist named Saul Schanberg was developing enzymes and growth hormones for babies.  To test them, he got funding to give them to laboratory rats-- baby rats.  In order to administer the drugs, they had to separate the baby rats from their mothers.  Inexplicably, all of the baby rats did not do well.  The 'control' group AND the groups given the drugs showed signs of 'failing to thrive.'  This was unexpected and Saul tried to figure out what was going wrong.  Saul realized that the problem was that they had taken the baby rats away from their mothers.  They struggled for a while trying to figure out how to keep the baby rats alive long enough to test the drugs on them.  Finally they noticed that rat moms lick their newborn babies a lot to groom them.  In order to simulate that licking, Saul rigged up wet paintbrushes to stroke the rat babies.  That was the missing link-- the babies all improved and their tests on the hormone and enzyme could resume. 

Because of this unexpected result, Saul learned more about the need for baby rats to be touched and massaged than he learned about the drugs he was testing.  Saul was intrigued enough by this result that he shifted his focus away from enzymes and growth hormones and toward the effects of touch in infant development.  Maybe he didn't need a drug to improve the growth and development of premature babies-- human touch may be the answer. 

After more research, they found that chemicals were released by the brain when baby rats were taken from their mothers that put them into an artificial hibernation.  That explained the lack of absorption of nutrients when fed.  It was necessary for their survival to not need food when their mother, the one who fed them, was absent.  Once the mother returned, the body went back to normal and they thrived again.  And researchers learned how to mimic the mother's return with touch that simulated licking, producing each effect.  If baby rats were in hibernation too long, it stunted their development or led to their death.   Saul theorized that the brain effects they found in rats would also hold for humans, because the basic neural and touch systems are the same.  Subsequent research proved that to be true.

In those days, premature babies and really sick babies were put in incubators and left alone.  Touch seemed to irritate them enough to cause breathing problems, so hospital workers didn't touch them.  They were warmed by lights, fed through tubes and only touched when nurses changed diapers.  In the late 1980's, doctors heard about Saul's research and began to hold and gently massage premature babies instead of leaving them alone in their incubators.  They found that carefully, gently massaged babies absorbed almost 50% more nutrition from the same amount of food, and that they developed faster mentally and in motor ability.  Massaged babies left the hospital 6 days earlier than the others.  Since then, hospitals all over the world have changed the way that they handle these at-risk babies.  Saul and others expanded their research into other groups of people with problems.  This led to better outcomes for depressed individuals, cancer patients and mentally ill teenagers.

Today Saul is known all over the world for his research.  The unintended problems he had with the baby mice became his research focus, leading to a change in the way the whole world treats at-risk newborn babies.  This helped save many lives in the process.

Often we set out to do something and have to deal with unforeseen problems.  Sometimes what we do doesn't seem to matter.  But we don't know if the problems might lead to a better solution to a bigger problem, as with Saul's research.  The key is using our problems for good and learning from them. 


Goleman, Daniel.  "The Experience of Touch:  Research Points to a Critical Role."  The New York Times, Feb 2, 1988.  http://www.nytimes.com/1988/02/02/science/the-experience-of-touch-research-points-to-a-critical-role.html

Kuhn, Cynthia M.  "Obituary of Saul M. Schanberg."  Neuropsychopharomacology (2010) 35, 2650.  http://www.nature.com/npp/journal/v35/n13/full/npp2010112a.html

O'Brien, Theresa.  "Researcher Posthumously Wins Golden Goose for Preemie Massage Research."  Examiner.com.  September 5, 2014.  http://www.examiner.com/article/researcher-posthumously-wins-golden-goose-for-preemie-massage-research

Ritter, Steve.  "Newscripts."  Chemical and Engineering News. October 13, 2014, p. 40.  Print.

Photo courtesy of Nature.com

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