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Rebecca German, Ph.D.

Swallowing Research at NEOMED Garners National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grant

Understanding how infants coordinate sucking and swallowing – and how those processes are coordinated with breathing – is  animal model research being done at Northeast Ohio Medical University that has potential for helping people of all ages who have feeding problems, including those with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Rebecca German, Ph.D., a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at NEOMED, has received an award from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to support her research project titled The effect of sensory intervention on swallowing and respiration through neurological maturation in preterm infants.

Dr. German is the principal investigator on the project; co-investigator is Francois Gould, Ph.D., a former research assistant professor in Dr. German’s lab at NEOMED. Dr. Gould will be an assistant professor of cell biology and neuroscience at Rowan University in New Jersey as of July 1.

Dr. German explains the project:

The processes of sucking and swallowing, and their coordination with breathing, are often compromised in preterm (premature) infants, yet are critical to their long-term health outcomes. We know that a positive stimulation (gentle vibration, for example) of the lips or mouth can induce rhythmic sucking in both fullterm infants and in preterm infants. People think that there are connections in the brainstem where these sensory nerves (information going into the brain) are connected to motor nerves (information going out of the brain) that control the cheeks and the tongue, which are important for sucking.

Previous work from my lab shows that these sensory nerves are also communicating, in the brainstem, to motor nerves of the muscles that make swallowing happen.

We don’t know, however, a number of things about these connections:

  • Do these sensory nerves communicate with the parts of the brainstem that control breathing?
  • How are these relationships between sensory and motor nerves different in preterm infants?
  • Does the degree of prematurity matter to this control? How does growth and maturation of infants in the first few months of life change the nervous system for sucking, swallowing and breathing?


This project is to determine if we can leverage these connections into a rehabilitation strategy for preterm infants.

One of the reasons we don’t understand the impact of interventions on these functions is that human preterm infants are a fragile research population, with restrictions on experimental manipulations. My lab has developed an animal model, the infant pig, to measure feeding and breathing in ways that can be translated to human patients.

We have designed a therapeutic intervention for helping preterm human infants, and will test it in our pig model. We will determine how, and at what age, oral stimuli change feeding-respiration coordination in neonates. Because this work is based on how the brain works, how the muscles work, and how infant function, it has potential for helping people of all ages who have feeding problems.