At first glance, it looks like a pacifier.
But to Kansas University researcher Steven Barlow, the high-tech Actifier may be a way to prevent developmental disabilities and boost intelligence in premature babies.
"This is new territory for medicine in general, and it's new territory for those in neuroscience," said Barlow, a professor of speech, language and hearing. "No one else is doing anything similar."
Barlow and Donald Finan, professor at the University of Colorado, developed the Actifier using a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
It works this way: The silicon pacifier is hooked up to specially designed computer-controlled sensors and motors that stimulate and record neuromuscular responses while the baby sucks. It collects data to tell doctors and nurses how well a baby is sucking, and at the same time a gently pulsing motor stimulates nerve endings in the baby's lip to help coordinate and time muscle contractions.
Sucking is a skill that normally begins in the womb and is an important stimulus for babies' developing brains.
"A baby's ability to suck is about more than getting nourishment," Barlow said. "This motor behavior generates sensory flow that nurtures the brain to form and strengthen nerve connections and pathways."
A three-year study to test 390 infants has begun at the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kan., and at Stormont-Vail Regional Health Care in Topeka. Barlow hopes to show the Actifier helps premature babies avoid respiratory distress syndrome and vascular strokes.
A further study by John Colombo, professor of psychology, will examine the IQs of premature babies who used the Actifier compared with their peers who did not.
Marcus Carlos McLaughlin, who was born 3 1/2 months early in June, is among the infants participating in the current study. His mother, Belinda Hinojos, said she didn't completely understand the Actifier.
"But what really sold me on it," she said, "was learning it would help mothers with premature babies in the future."