AUTHORS: Adam-Darque A, Freitas L, Grouiller F, Sauser J, Lazeyras F, Van De Ville D, Pollien P, Garcia-Rodenas CL, Bergonzelli G, Hüppi PS, Ha-Vinh Leuchter R

Pediatric Research, 89(5): 1239–1244, April 2021



Excessive and inconsolable crying behavior in otherwise healthy infants (a condition called infant colic (IC)) is very distressing to parents, may lead to maternal depression, and in extreme cases, may result in shaken baby syndrome. Despite the high prevalence of this condition (20% of healthy infants), the underlying neural mechanisms of IC are still unknown.


By employing the latest magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques in newborns, we prospectively investigated whether newborns’ early brain responses to a sensory stimulus (smell) is associated with a subsequent crying behavior.


In our sample population of 21 healthy breastfed newborns, those who developed IC at 6 weeks exhibited brain activation and functional connectivity in primary and secondary olfactory brain areas that were distinct from those in babies that did not develop IC. Different activation in brain regions known to be involved in sensory integration was also observed in colicky babies. These responses measured shortly after birth were highly correlated with the mean crying time at 6 weeks of age.


Our results offer novel insights into IC pathophysiology by demonstrating that, shortly after birth, the central nervous system of babies developing IC has already greater reactivity to sensory stimuli than that of their noncolicky peers.


Shortly after birth, the central nervous system of colicky infants has a greater sensitivity to olfactory stimuli than that of their noncolicky peers. This early sensitivity explains as much as 48% of their subsequent crying behavior at 6 weeks of life.Brain activation patterns to olfactory stimuli in colicky infants include not only primary olfactory areas but also brain regions involved in pain processing, emotional valence attribution, and self-regulation.This study links earlier findings in fields as diverse as gastroenterology and behavioral psychology and has the potential of helping healthcare professionals to define strategies to advise families.

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