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They Say: Fetuses are Teachable

fetus-memoryOh no. Just when panicky parents have collectively given up on headphones that stretch across a pregnant belly, this latest research into the braininess of fetuses threatens to spawn a whole new round of in-utero educational products.

Still. What scientists found is pretty cool: you can teach fetuses — they have a memory! Here’s how investigators know:

Using sound and vibration stimulus on the bellies of 93 pregnant women, Dutch researchers found that a 30-week-old fetus can recognize that sound for 10 whole minutes. But 34-week-old fetuses can remember the sound for up to four weeks!

From the LA Times:

The stimulus lasted for one second and was repeated every 30 seconds, at a location just above the fetus’ leg. The fetuses ranged from 30 weeks to 38 weeks.

At first, the fetus would make a startled-like movement, says study coauthor Dr. Jan Nijhuis, director of the Centre for Genetics, Reproduction and Child Health at Maastricht University Medical Centre in the Netherlands. Eventually though, it would stop reacting. The researchers then counted the number of stimuli before the fetus stopped responding.


The fetuses that had been 34 weeks at the time of the stimuli adjusted more quickly when the stimuli was applied at 38 weeks. This adjustment, called habituation, demonstrates the fetus can store and retrieve information. “Oh that old gag,” the fetus thinks. “Nothing to worry about.”

Of course, that’s a good thing to have or fetuses would be freaking out for weeks and weeks just from the mother’s heartbeat, her breathing and swearing at reckless drivers — nevermind the sound and vibration stimuli.

A lead researcher in the study said these findings are important information about the central nervous system and will ultimately be useful for identifying those fetuses at risk for developmental delays. An assessment could help doctors better time delivery — will the fetus be better off in the womb or on the outside, according to one of the researchers.

I still think someone’s going to use this info as the basis for in-utero flashcards or something.

The study was published in the July/August issue of Child Development.

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Photo: LA Times

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