Crash-Test Babies

By Jocelyn Selim|Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Do common household falls hurt babies’ brains? To find out, University of Pennsylvania bioengineer Susan Margulies outfitted plastic dolls with neck hinges, bone-simulating plastic skulls, and sensors. Then

Courtesy Susan Margulies/University of Pennsylvania

she subjected them to a battery of falls and assaults. Combining her results with published data from animals and children, Margulies concluded that a five-foot drop onto a hard surface is enough to cause serious brain-tissue damage and internal bleeding, which could reduce a child’s learning ability and affect long-term behavior. “Because infants’ skulls are soft and not fused, there is a tendency to think of them as more resilient, but they just have different criteria for damage,” Margulies says. As with adults, infant skulls are more vulnerable to side-to-side rotational injuries than to straight linear impacts. Infant skulls are thinner, however, so they fracture at much lower stress thresholds. “Young skulls bend more before they break, which means that brain injury is more likely to occur even without the presence of a skull fracture.”

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