From chugging a glass of water to inducing a scare, there are countless home remedies that aim to stop hiccups, but one new study suggests the function is vital to the body’s development.
Conducted by researchers at the University College London, the study finds that the action of hiccuping sends a large wave of brain signals that help newborns learn how to regulate their breathing functions.
“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,” Kimberley Whitehead, the study’s lead author, said in a press release.
The study, which is published in the journal Clinical Neurophysiology, looked at brain scans of infants, with researchers determining newborns spend about 15 minutes a day hiccuping, and that hiccups begin in fetuses at nine weeks — meaning it’s one of the earliest functions humans develop in the womb.
To carry out the tests, scientists attached electrodes to the babies’ scalps and placed additional sensory tools on their torsos to track contractions.
When a baby hiccups, the team noticed that contractions triggered a “pronounced response in the brain’s cortex — two large brainwaves followed by a third.” The study concludes that an infant’s brain is then able to link the hiccup sound with the feeling of the contraction, helping them to develop breathing patterns.
“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 voluntary controlled by moving the diaphragm up and down,” Lorenzo Fabrizi, one of the authors, said in a press release.
He continued: “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.”
As for why people continue to catch the hiccups into adulthood, the researchers believe it could be a leftover function from childhood that humans can’t quite evade.
“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, left over from infancy when it had an important function,” Whitehead said.