Hiccups

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Why Do We Hiccup?

11-Feb-2003


Lungfish
Scientists finally think they may be able to explain why we get the hiccups. French researchers think it may be because our ancient ancestors lived in the sea and had gills. Scientists have been searching for the reason we hiccup for hundreds of years, because it doesn’t seem to have any purpose. If hiccups were supposed to keep food or fluid out of the lungs, they would be a cough-like response, not an intake of breath. Hiccups are sudden contractions of the muscles used for breathing in. Just after the muscles start to move, the glottis (which keeps the food out of our airway) shuts off the windpipe to produce a "hic." Ultrasound scans show that two- month-old babies hiccup in the womb, before they breathe.

But hiccups do make sense for animals that have both lungs and gills, such as lungfish, gar and some amphibians. They push water across their gills by squeezing their mouth cavity while closing the glottis to stop the water from getting into their lungs. Christian Straus thinks this has persisted into modern mammals, including humans, and that hiccups have adapted to a new use—teaching newborns how to breastfeed. The sequence of movements during breastfeeding is similar to hiccupping, with the glottis closing to prevent milk entering the lungs. He plans to look at the specific areas of the brain that control hiccups and sucking movements, to see if the same nerve cells control both of them.

 

Copyright © 2010 Tim Stouse
Last modified: December 10, 2010
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