Ohio State-industry collaboration helps baby’s brain thrive

Posted: March 18, 2020


A collaboration between The Ohio State University’s Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence (CDME) and a startup company could have a major impact on the neurological development of preterm infants, and eventually all babies.

Working with Thrive Neuromedical, an Ohio-based spinout of the Abigail Wexner Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, engineers at CDME are helping develop a device to enrich the brain development of babies who spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

A baby’s brain doubles in size during the first year of life, during which important neural connections are made that provide the foundation for language and speech development. About 10% of newborns are admitted to the NICU after birth, primarily for complications due to preterm delivery. These infants are at risk for abnormal sensory development due to brain immaturity at birth and the atypical early sensory experiences in the NICU. This altered sensory development can have downstream effects on other more complex developmental processes.  

“A key part of that early neurological development occurs through exposure and interaction with the voice of the baby’s mother. Babies are wired to prefer that maternal voice,” said Dean Koch, CEO of Thrive Neuromedical. He co-founded the company with Dr. Nathalie Maitre, a neonatologist and physician-scientist who serves as director of the NICU Follow-up Program and NICU Music Therapy Program at Nationwide Children's. “That natural inclination to raise the tone of your voice, elongate your vowels, get very sing-songy. It’s called infant-directed speech, or what’s commonly known as baby talk.”

When babies are deprived of consistent access to that infant-directed speech, as NICU babies commonly are, it can interrupt that brain wiring and negatively impact speech and language outcomes later in childhood. Other delays can arise with general motor skills and cognitive functioning as well.

Based on Dr. Maitre’s research, Thrive created a product concept to bring mom’s voice into the NICU for times when she can’t be there in person. When they were ready to translate the research into a real product, they tapped the resources at Ohio State’s CDME. Together with Nationwide Children’s, which owns the intellectual property, the team developed an internet of things (IoT) solution for the NICU.

Thrive Neuromedical
Thrive Neuromedical

At the center of the system is an egg-shaped speaker that sits in the incubator with baby and, during wakeful times and at nurse discretion, plays a 20-minute carefully processed recording of mom, speaking or singing to the baby, following a prescribed, infant-directed program. This exposure can help to develop the crucial neural connections that allow the infant to recognize the speech sounds, or “phonemes” that make up their native language.

For certain babies, a sensor equipped pacifier is introduced, so that their natural “suck” action at an adjustable threshold provides them 10 seconds of their mother’s voice, which then fades away. The baby quickly recognizes the contingency between their action and the instant reaction of their mother’s voice. This engagement is believed to make positive brain changes that can impact speech and language outcomes. The company has received a grant from the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders to pursue this research.

“CDME has been integral in taking our vision and turning it into a device that is ready for clinical research in a very cost-effective and rapid way, which is a real asset to have,” said Koch.

Using computer-aided design software and 3D printing, CDME engineers upgraded the original prototype to meet the strict safety and infection-control standards of the NICU. They created a custom circuit board, added wireless charging to make the device more easily sanitized, and designed a silicone sleeve to allow for even safer usage, said CDME Program Manager Mary Hoffman Pancake.

Forty devices were constructed for the first iteration of the product, all of which are currently in use in clinical trials.

Researchers are continuing to gather data as part of pre-clinical testing being conducted on the pacifier version of the device. Early results have been promising.

“Our mission at CDME to advance technology, with a focus in the medical space, the mission of Nationwide Children’s and Thrive, it all just meshed,” Pancake said of the collaboration.

NICU patients aren’t the only babies who stand to benefit from the partnership. The team is also collaborating on a consumer version of the product focused on the brain development impact of exposure to more than one language during infancy, which research suggests may provide a cognitive advantage.  

At the 33d Annual Graven’s Conference in Clearwater, Florida, Maitre and Dr. Celine Richard, a pediatric neurotology surgeon, presented results of a study they completed with Nationwide Children’s showing the brain changes associated with just a short series of exposure to CDME’s bilingual prototype.

“To see that you can make an impact on someone’s life particularly at that early stage, and know you’re going to help them hopefully thrive when they’re older, it’s very gratifying,” said Pancake.

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | biss.11@osu.edu