Peeping Tom: Prenatal voyeurism and its possible side effects

“There was a study about ultrasounds done by someone whom we are all very familiar with,” someone said this morning at our weekly Dana Press staff meeting. Most of us thought of big-name neuroscientists, members of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. Suddenly, from across the table, we heard, “Tom Cruise?”

Cruise, of course, purchased an ultrasound machine to “take pictures” of his unborn daughter. The popularity of such pictures is growing—machines are now available even in some shopping malls. But a new study by Pasko Rakic, a Dana Alliance member and head of the Department of Neurobiology at Yale University, suggests that expectant parents may want to think twice.

Rakic exposed pregnant mice to ultrasound waves for 30 minutes or longer and found that the developing nerve cells did not migrate to their proper positions in the brain.

Might ultrasound potentially harm the fetus? Could it possibly be one cause of rising rates of autism and other neural disorders in children?

Before you skip your next doctor’s appointment, it is important to keep in mind that this study is preliminary, small, and conducted on mice. Not only are human brains much larger than mouse brains, but during the study the ultrasound probe was held stationary over the mouse brain the entire time. In humans, of course, the probe moves around, scanning the entire body of the fetus; the amount of time the brain is exposed to the ultrasound wave is far less.

The study ought to make old Tom nervous that unnecessary sonograms might be risky. The study by Rakic and his research team will be featured in “News from the Frontier” in the September-October issue of BrainWork. They next plan to study nonhuman primates for similar effects. Tom Cruise and others: Stay tuned.

— Heidi Ogrodnek

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