Understanding Preterm Infant Development

Lickliter is a developmentalist – someone who works on the process of development and how it progresses. He began his academic career asking the question: How do we get from a single fertilized cell to a fully actualized human being? And just like developmentalists have since the field began, he ran up against an age-old conundrum. “How do you ask questions that can’t be answered? Going back to the beginning is impossible. Anything you do with a fetus is invasive, so your knowledge is going to be limited,” he notes.

“With a precocial infant, it is possible to ‘ask’ questions to see if perception has changed,” says Lickliter.

Because birds come in eggs, which are not grown inside the mother’s body and have thin, translucent shells, they are ideal for developmental studies. Using candling, a method in which a bright light source is held up to view the growth and development inside an egg, researchers can “trace the origin of how things start; we are able to track the embryo throughout the prenatal experience,” says Lickliter.

“The NICU environment is wildly different than that normally available in utero, where sensory stimulation is buffered by mom,” says Lickliter. “Preemies go from having regular movement, and relative silence and darkness, to complete stillness, constant visual stimulation and constant noise. And the question becomes – what is the impact of these changes in experience on their development? We have younger and younger infants that are being born preterm – they tend to have more visual problems and are at risk for a host of problems. Do those problems begin before birth or as a result of the changes in experience associated with preterm birth?”

Lickliter’s lab has explored these questions by conducting experiments, such as scoring the tip of the bobwhite quail’s egg to enable more light to come in, or exposing the eggs and/or newborn chicks to unusual light patterns to note the impact on their vision. The team has also tested sound patterns and noted where increased noise might impact development.

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