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婴儿的秘密世界

更新时间:2018-4-19 20:58:27 来源:纽约时报中文网 作者:佚名

The secret world of babies
婴儿的秘密世界

I am sitting in a lab in London, holding my wriggling baby son in my arms, while two scientists gently try to remove a futuristic-looking cap from his head. The cap, which looks a bit like a swimming hat topped by a tangle of cables, is part of one of the most cutting-edge tools in infant research. It could reveal unprecedented insights into the minds of babies and transform our understanding of early development.

我坐在伦敦一个实验室里,宝贝儿子在我怀里扭来扭去,两位科学家正小心翼翼地摘掉他头上那顶看着很科幻的帽子。帽子像一个泳帽,顶上堆了一团电线,这是当今婴儿研究界最尖端的工具之一。它前所未有地展示了婴儿大脑中的意识,改变了我们对于人类早期发育的认知。

But right now, my 11-month-old son does not want to be studied.

但是这一刻,我11个月大的儿子并不想被研究。

“I’m sorry, baby,” says Maheen Siddiqui, a PhD student here at Birkbeck College’s Babylab, one of the world’s leading centres on infant research.

"真抱歉,宝宝,"西迪基(Maheen Siddiqui)说。她正在世界领先的婴儿研究中心——伦敦大学伯贝克学院婴儿实验室里攻读博士。

Siddiqui is using a pioneering technique called functional near infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS, to study what happens inside babies’ brain cells when they look at faces, patterns or objects. In particular, she is looking at an enzyme in the mitochondria – the tiny power plants in our cells that generate the energy we need to live. The equipment she uses shines near infrared light into the brain: light with a specific wavelength that passes through bone and tissue but is absorbed by blood. The kit has been specially designed to be comfortable for babies.

西迪基使用的先进技术叫功能性近红外光谱,简称fNIRS,旨在研究婴儿在注视面孔、图案或物体时,脑细胞里发生的变化。她特别研究线粒体中的一种酶——线粒体是人体细胞中的迷你发电厂,能产生细胞生存所需的能量。她所用的这顶科幻帽会往大脑照射近红外光,特殊的波长穿过骨头和人体组织,再被血液吸收。这套装备是考虑了婴儿的舒适度后专门设计的。

Unfortunately, mine would rather play with the cap than wear it. Siddiqui carefully lifts it off. Laurel Fish, a research assistant, blows soap bubbles across the lab. My son cheers up. I am beginning to understand some of the practical challenges of investigating the earliest weeks and months of human life.

很可惜,我儿子宁愿玩这顶帽子,也不想戴着它。西迪基只好小心翼翼地摘下来。另一个研究助理菲什(Laurel Fish)在研究室里到处吹肥皂泡,让我儿子很兴奋。我开始感慨,想要研究人类生命最初的阶段,真的有不少实际挑战。

How do babies make sense of the world? Like many new parents, my husband and I asked ourselves this question constantly from the moment our son was born. Our infant seemed like a nocturnal little alien, mysterious and fascinating. He obviously had no idea what clothes were, so did he just think we were changing colour all the time? And since he had no sense of perspective, did he think we changed sizes when we walked across the room?

婴儿怎么感知世界呢?像许多新上任的父母一样,从我儿子出生的那一刻起,我跟我丈夫就一直怀揣这个问题。我们的宝宝像是一个小小的夜行外星人,神秘而迷人。显然他不知道衣服是什么,所以他会不会觉得我们一直在变色?而且他也没有远近透视的概念,当我们穿过房间,他会不会觉得我们在变大变小?

There is a long history of scientists exploring the secret world of babies. Darwin, for example, published a detailed diary of observations of his baby son (“...when he was 66 days old, I happened to sneeze, and he started violently”); his children became a way for him to develop his theory of evolution. But this history is also studded with some extraordinary misunderstandings, perhaps because babies cannot tell us what they think and feel. In the 19th and 20th Centuries, many scientists even held the belief that babies could not feel pain.

科学家探索婴儿的秘密世界,已有很长的历史。像达尔文就发表过一篇关于自己儿子的详细观察日记("他66天大的时候,我碰巧打了个喷嚏,他的反应很激烈");达尔文的孩子们成了他建立进化论的助力。不过,或许因为婴孩不能表达自己的所想所感,科学家的探索史里也有不少莫名其妙的误解。在19和20世纪,很多科学家甚至觉得婴儿没有痛觉。

Modern research, on the other hand, paints a picture of babies as alert, sensitive and intelligent. In our first few years, more than one million new neural connections are formed every second. Much of this busy brain work is hidden. Over the past two decades, however, technological advances have helped scientists reveal more of it.

但现代研究却发现婴儿十分警觉、敏感和聪明。在婴儿刚出生的几年,每秒钟都有上百万的神经连接形成,不过这种繁忙的大脑活动很难观测到。但在过去的二十年中,科技的进步已帮助科学家逐步挖掘出更多有关发现。

“This is the perfect mix of philosophy and science because you really are asking about things such as the origins of knowledge, and how thinking becomes, and how learning develops,” says Natasha Kirkham, an expert in child development and researcher at the Babylab. “I mean, these are really kind of big questions.”

"这是哲学和科学的完美结合,因为实际上你在叩问这样的问题:知识如何起源,思想如何形成,学习能力如何增长,"婴儿实验室研究员、儿童成长专家珂卡姆(Natasha Kirkham)表示,"我是说,这些可都是终极问题。"

In the early 2000s, much of infant research involved tracking the babies’ eye movements and laboriously analysing the results frame by frame, Kirkham says. “But now – it’s incredible what we can do. The neuroscientific technology has come on in leaps and bounds,” she tells me. “There is so much stuff you can do with a baby and learn so much about what they are thinking without them having to tell you.”

在本世纪初,有许多婴儿研究涉及追踪婴儿眼部运动,并不辞辛劳地逐帧分析结果,珂卡姆说。"不过今天,我们能做的就更惊人了。神经学技术水准突飞猛进。"她告诉我,"就算小宝宝不能说话,我们也能做很多事,了解他们的各种想法。"

Except, of course, when they don’t feel like cooperating.

当然,除了他们不愿配合。

Having rejected the cap, my son is now watching a woman recite nursery rhymes on a screen in front of him, clearly more satisfied with this part of the experiment. For all his outward calm, his brain is now probably tremendously busy, especially the area located just behind his ear. This patch, known as the superior temporal sulcus, or STS, is part of our ‘social brain’. It is here that we process our encounters with others.

儿子拒绝了这顶帽子后,就开始盯着他面前的萤幕,看一位女士朗诵童谣,显然他更喜欢实验的这一环节。尽管表面上看不出什么,其实他的大脑估计已相当忙碌,尤其是耳朵后面那一块。那个区域叫颞上沟(STS),是我们"社会脑"的一部分,用来处理和他人的接触。

In adults, the social brain is well-researched. But in babies, it used to be completely inaccessible. Babies simply don’t sit still long enough for more conventional instruments, such as MRI scanners, to work while they are awake.

关于成年人的社会脑,研究已相当深入。但说到孩子,这就成了不可能的任务。婴幼儿要是醒着,很难一直乖乖坐着接受核磁共振扫描器之类常规仪器的检查。

This is where near infrared spectroscopy comes in. Siddiqui uses a new type that can measure activity at the cellular level, inside the mitochondria. There is some evidence that differences in mitochondrial function could be linked to autism. So far, the research has consisted of studies of postmortem brain tissue. She is hoping to eventually test the hypothesis on live babies.

这就是近红外光谱技术的来源。尤其是西迪基用的这种新模式,可以深入线粒体,测量细胞层面的活动。有证据表明线粒体功能的异常可能与自闭症有关。但是到目前为止的研究都基于死后的脑组织。西迪基希望最终能在活婴身上进行论证。

Information age

资讯时代

Siddiqui’s project is one piece of a vast jigsaw puzzle of knowledge slowly being assembled at the Babylab. Researchers are gathering information from MRI scans of sleeping babies, sophisticated eye-trackers, EEGs that measure electrical activity in the brain, and even heart-rate monitors.

西迪基的专案只能算是婴儿实验室庞大知识拼图中的一小块。研究人员还从熟睡婴儿的核磁共振扫描、先进的眼动仪、测量脑电活动的脑电图,甚至心率监视器等,来收集资讯。

One common goal is to understand what typical development looks like, and then investigate why and how some babies develop differently. This involves studying their minds as well as their environment. Kirkham, for example, is interested in how babies manage to tell important from unimportant information, especially in disorganised surroundings.

不过这些研究的共同目标之一是,先搞清楚婴儿典型的发育过程,再研究有些宝宝发育异常的原因和方式。这包括研究他们的大脑活动和环境。像珂卡姆,就致力于研究婴幼儿如何辨别资讯是重要或不重要,尤其是在混乱的环境中如何辨别。

Babies learn by observing the world, trying to detect patterns and predict what comes next. But this can be difficult if their environment is chaotic, or if people around them behave unpredictably.

婴儿通过观察世界来学习,他们会试着找出所处环境的行为模式,并以此来预测随即将会发生什么事。但若是周遭的环境很混乱,或者身边的人不按常理出牌,那对婴幼儿来说,学习就会困难重重。

“One of the worst things that goes on in a baby’s life that can cause endless damage is not being able to predict the reactions of other people,” Kirkham says. “That kind of neglect-abuse cycle where you don’t know what’s going to happen when someone comes home – or what they’re going to do – causes the most damage, because not being able to predict is frightening.”

"婴儿生命中最糟糕的事之一,就是无法预测他人的反应,这会造成无尽的伤害,"珂卡姆说,"婴儿不知道家里人回来后会发生什么,会做什么,这种疏忽照看的虐待模式将对婴儿造成极大的伤害,因为无法预测,会让他们感到恐慌。"

There are too many individual factors involved for Babylab’s scientists to give specific parenting advice. But their research does allow parents to make more informed decisions – and not just because it underlines the importance of loving, consistent care. For example, their research on the effect of touchscreens on babies and toddlers found that their use is associated with less sleep, but earlier development of fine motor skills.

婴儿实验室的科学家给出明确的育儿意见时,会涉及到许多个别因素。不过他们的研究不仅仅强调了始终如一的关爱,而是让父母能做出更明智的抉择。例如,他们研究了婴幼儿使用触屏的效果,发现这会导致睡眠减少,但也有助于手指灵巧度的更早发育。

One tool that has proven particularly integral for these types of findings is near infrared spectroscopy. Shining near infrared light through the skull allows researchers to measure levels of blood oxygen in the brain. This in turn gives a picture of brain activity, since oxygen-rich blood flows into active areas.

有一个工具,对这些调查研究是不可或缺,那就是近红外光谱。研究人员往头骨内照射近红外光,能测量出大脑中的血氧水准。富氧血液会流入大脑活跃的区域,这反过来可勾画出大脑的活动图。

When Babylab research fellow Sarah Lloyd-Fox began working with the technology more than a decade ago, it already had been used to study adult brains. To use it on babies, she had to develop it further with researchers at University College London. She now makes the standard headgear – a broad black band with attached cables – for other labs as well as conducting her own research.

婴儿实验室的研究员罗伊德福克斯(Sarah Lloyd-Fox)在十几年前开始使用这项技术时,它早已用于成人大脑研究。但要用于在婴儿研究,则需要进一步研发。她最近在给其他实验室制作高级的头饰,一条装有多条电线的黑色宽发带,以用来继续她的研究。

“I think I’m one of the pioneers,” she says as we sit in the lab’s waiting room, a cheerful, toy-strewn space that feels more like a nursery. My son seems to have forgotten all about the funny hat. He tries to climb onto Lloyd-Fox’s lap. She points out the area behind his ear that is probably being flooded with oxygen-rich blood right now, his social brain working hard.

我们坐在实验室外等候,罗伊德福克斯说"我觉得,自己也算这一研究的先驱吧。"这里到处散落着玩具,气氛欢乐,像是托儿所。我儿子大概早忘记了刚才那顶滑稽帽子,正一个劲往罗伊德福克斯的腿上爬。她点了点我儿子脑袋的耳朵后面,估计儿子脑部那块区域正流动着富氧血液,他的社会脑区正在高速运作着。

Lloyd-Fox’s research has yielded a series of breakthroughs. One of her studies showed that babies as young as one day activate their ‘social brain’ in response to footage of a woman playing peekaboo. Another indicated that the brains of four- to six-month old babies at risk for autism responded less strongly to social cues compared to a low-risk group. No-one had been able to demonstrate this at such a young age before.

罗伊德福克斯的研究已取得了一系列的突破。其中之一显示,仅出生一天后的宝宝,看到一个女人玩躲猫猫的视频画面后,其 "社会脑" 也会活跃起来。另一个研究显示,四到六个月大婴儿的脑部,有患自闭症风险的对交流提示的反应,比风险低的孩子弱很多。

More generally, the technology raises the prospect of the early detection of a whole range of neurological differences, helping children get the right support long before the appearance of any outward symptoms.

更为普遍的是,这项技术有助于早期发现一系列神经系统异常,使得儿童远在外在症状出现之前就能得到正确的帮助。

“Behaviourally, you won’t be able to see if this child has autism, or has been affected by under-nutrition, or has had brain injury when they’re premature babies, potentially until they’re two or three years,” Lloyd-Fox says. “But you can look if there’s a brain response prior to that baby being able to respond in a behavioural way.”

罗伊德福克斯说,"除非等到孩子两三岁,否则光看行为,很难看出他们是不是有自闭症,有没有受到营养不良的影响,有没有因早产造成大脑损伤," "不过你可以在婴儿能有外在行为反应之前,观看他们大脑的反应。"

Lighting up

照亮儿童的光明

Because the NIRS equipment is cheaper and more mobile than an MRI scanner, it also could revolutionise the study of infants in poorer countries.

近红外光谱设备比核磁共振扫描器更便宜、更便捷,能彻底改变贫穷国家的婴儿研究。

In 2012, a clinic in the Gambia contacted the Babylab to ask if they could use NIRS to study local babies. Lloyd-Fox transported the gear across bumpy roads to a field station, where she was able to replicate her findings.

2012年,冈比亚一家诊所联系到英国的婴儿实验室,询问是否可以使用他们的近红外光谱仪来研究当地的婴孩。罗伊德福克斯穿过崎岖不平的道路,把设备运到一个实验站,好在那重复自己的实验成果。

The project was not only a first for the Gambia, but for all of Africa: previously, there had not been any infant brain imaging of the kind in the region. The collaboration has now grown into a broader study of early development in the Gambia and Britain.

该专案在冈比亚,甚至整个非洲,均数首次。在此之前,那里从来没有建立过任何婴儿的大脑成像。如今,这场合作已经发展为冈比亚和英国有关人类早期发育更为广泛的研究。

One area of focus is the impact of malnutrition, as 25 percent of Gambian children are severely undernourished.

由于冈比亚四分之一的儿童严重营养不良,一个重点领域是有关营养不良的影响。

“One of the big questions is, how does under-nourishment affect the brain?” says Lloyd-Fox. “Even in adult research they haven’t really done this, so we’re really flying blind in a way in this field. We don’t really know exactly which brain areas are affected in any person, not just infants.”

"有一个重大问题是,营养不良到底怎么影响大脑呢?"罗伊德福克斯说,"即使在成年人领域,这一块也没怎么探索。所以我们是在瞎子探路。不只是婴儿,我们连到底人类大脑哪一区域会受到影响都不知道。"

At home, the Babylab is also undergoing a major expansion. The next couple of years will see the opening of a toddler lab complete with a virtual reality cave, which promises a completely new perspective on that crucial developmental stage.

在英国,婴儿实验室也在逐步扩建。两年后一个幼儿实验室将开幕,到时会建有虚拟现实洞穴,给这个关键的人类早期发育阶段提供一个全新的研究视角。

Toward the end of my visit to the lab, my son falls asleep. Today has been another exciting day for him, filled with many new impressions. I reflect on what the experience has taught me as a parent. It has been heartening to hear that babies really do observe us and respond to us long before they can express themselves. It is also gratifying to know that much of what parents do instinctively – the cooing, the cuddling, the funny noises – has firm scientific backing, and provides the best environment for the brain to develop.

结束此次实验室之行时,我儿子睡着了。对他而言,今天又是兴奋的一天,有了很多新印象。我也反思自己身为父母,从今日之行中学到了什么。得知孩子在能表达自己之前,真的早就在观察回应我们,令我好生欣慰。许多父母本能的行为,哄哄抱抱、对着宝宝做鬼脸发怪叫,其背后也有坚实的科学依据,这是为婴儿大脑发育提供了最好的环境。

And as for whether newborns think we change colour and size all the time? Kirkham, the child development expert, said this was a brilliant question. Her answer: yes, it’s possible that my son initially thought we changed colour. But most likely, he simply ignored our clothes and focused on what really mattered to him: our faces.

至于新生儿到底有没有觉得我们当爸妈的不断在变颜色和变大小,儿童发育专家珂卡姆觉得这是个很棒的问题。她的回答是,对的,我儿子最开始可能是觉得我们在变色。不过很有可能,他根本未留意我们的衣服,而把注意力放在对他而言更重要的事上——我们的脸上。

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