A new study published in the journal of Clinical Neurophysiology has found that hiccups could play a key role in developing the brain in infants and help them learn how to breathe.
The study, funded by the Medical Research Council, showed that hiccups produce brain activity, helping infants to learn how to control their breathing muscles and diaphragm.
Researchers wanted to know whether hiccups in adults could be a leftover “reflex” from infancy.
The researchers found that when newborn babies hiccup, it triggers a flood of brain activity, which could help them learn how to control or regulate their breathing.
Senior study author Dr. Lorenzo Fabrizi from University College London said, “The activity resulting from a hiccup may be helping the baby’s brain to learn how to monitor the breathing muscles so that eventually breathing can be voluntarily controlled by moving the diaphragm up and down.”
“’When we are born, the circuits which process body sensations are not fully developed, so the establishment of such networks is a crucial developmental milestone for newborns,” Dr. Fabrizi added.
The authors explained that hiccups usually begin in the womb, indicating that it could one of the earliest established patterns of brain activity.
Lead study author and clinical psychologist Kimberley Whitehead from University College London said, “The reasons for why we hiccup are not entirely clear. But there may be a developmental reason, given that fetuses and newborn babies hiccup so frequently.”
The new study looked at 13 infants who had an episode of hiccups and found it contracted the diaphragm muscle, triggering two large brainwaves in the brain’s cortex region, followed by a third brainwave.
The third brainwave is quite similar to that triggered by a noise, which is why newborn babies’ brains could be able to link the “hic” sound of the hiccup with the contraction of the diaphragm muscle.
The study findings suggest that adult hiccups could be a “reflex” leftover from infancy. “Our findings have prompted us to wonder whether hiccups in adults, which appear to be mainly a nuisance, may in fact by a vestigial reflex leftover from infancy when it had an important function,” said Whitehead.