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Facial expressions reported to develop before birth

Sept. 14, 2011
Courtesy of Lancaster University
and World Science staff

Ba­bies in the womb de­vel­op a range of fa­cial move­ments in which one can iden­ti­fy fa­cial ex­pres­sions such as laugh­ter and cry­ing, re­search­ers say.

“This is a new and fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight in­to the re­mark­a­ble pro­cess of fe­tal de­vel­opment. This re­search has for the first time dem­on­strat­ed that in healthy fe­tus­es there is a de­vel­opmental pro­gres­sion from sim­ple to com­plex fa­cial move­ments, pre­par­ing the fe­tus for life post-birth,” said Bri­an Fran­cis of Lan­cas­ter Uni­vers­ity, U.K., one of the re­search­ers.

4D ul­tra­sound im­ages of fe­tal fa­cial move­ments re­ported to be linked to smil­ing (a­bove) and cry­ing (be­low). The la­bels refer to codes used by the re­search­ers to class­ify diff­er­ent "ex­press­ions." (Cour­te­sy P­LoS One)


They claim the move­ments de­vel­op be­fore the ba­by feels emo­tion, just as a ba­by prac­tises breath­ing move­ments in the uter­us even be­fore it has drawn a breath. 

In a new report, the sci­en­tists pre­sent im­ages of what they call fa­cial ex­pres­sions de­vel­oping be­tween 24 to 36 weeks gesta­t­ion. They ex­am­ined video­tapes of de­vel­oping fe­tus­es us­ing so-called 4D ul­tra­sound machines.

Fe­tus­es at 24 weeks could move one fa­cial mus­cle at a time, such as stretch­ing the lips or open­ing the mouth, the re­search­ers said. By 35 weeks, fe­tus­es com­bined dif­fer­ent fa­cial mus­cle move­ments, com­bin­ing for ex­am­ple lip stretch and eyebrow-lowering. Thus by birth the ba­by has al­ready de­vel­oped the fa­cial move­ments to ac­com­pa­ny cry­ing and laugh­ing, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said.

“We have found so much more than we ex­pected. We knew that the ba­by blinks be­fore birth and that some re­search has iden­ti­fied scowl­ing be­fore birth. How­ev­er in this study for the first time we have de­vel­oped a meth­od of cod­ing and anal­y­sis which al­lows us to ob­jec­tively trace the in­creas­ing com­plex­ity of move­ments over time which re­sults in rec­og­niz­a­ble fa­cial ex­pres­sions,” said Nad­ja Reiss­land from Dur­ham Uni­vers­ity, U.K., an­oth­er of the sci­en­tists.

The disco­very could help po­ten­tially iden­ti­fy health prob­lems in fe­tus­es, since their be­hav­ior pat­terns are linked to brain de­vel­opment, they added. The re­search­ers next plan to look at wheth­er fe­tal fa­cial move­ment might help dif­fer­entiate be­tween fe­tus­es of moth­ers who smoke dur­ing preg­nan­cy and non-smokers, and to ex­am­ine the de­vel­opment of fa­cial ex­pres­sions re­lat­ing to an­ger, smil­ing and sad­ness.

The new find­ings are published in the re­search jour­nal PLoS One.


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Babies in the womb develop a range of facial movements in which one can identify facial expressions such as laughter and crying, researchers say. “This is a new and fascinating insight into the remarkable process of fetal development. This research has for the first time demonstrated that in healthy fetuses there is a developmental progression from simple to complex facial movements, preparing the fetus for life post-birth,” said Brian Francis of Lancaster University, U.K., one of the researchers. The researchers claim the movements develop before the baby feels emotion, just as a baby practises breathing movements in the uterus even before it has drawn a breath. The scientists’ new report presented images of what they called facial expressions developing between 24 to 36 weeks gestation. They examined videotapes of developing fetuses using so-called 4D ultrasound machines. Fetuses at 24 weeks could move one facial muscle at a time, such as stretching the lips or opening the mouth, the researchers said. By 35 weeks, fetuses combined different facial muscle movements, combining for example lip stretch and eyebrow-lowering. Thus by birth the baby has already developed the facial movements to accompany crying and laughing, the investigators said. “We have found so much more than we expected. We knew that the baby blinks before birth and that some research has identified scowling before birth. However in this study for the first time we have developed a method of coding and analysis which allows us to objectively trace the increasing complexity of movements over time which results in recognizable facial expressions,” said Nadja Reissland from Durham University, U.K., another of the scientists. The discovery could help potentially identify health problems in fetuses, since their behavior patterns are linked to brain development, they added. The researchers next plan to look at whether fetal facial movement might help differentiate between fetuses of mothers who smoke during pregnancy and non-smokers, and to examine the development of facial expressions relating to anger, smiling and sadness.