Short-term Memory Found In 30-week-old Fetuses- ScienceDaily (July 15, 2009)

A call to NARAL Pro-Choice America for comment on the implications of the research were not returned. (Big surprise)

Memory probably begins during the prenatal period, but little is known about the exact timing or for how long memory lasts. Now in a new study from the Netherlands, scientists have found fetal short-term memory in fetuses at 30 weeks.

The study provides insights into fetal development and may help address and prevent abnormalities. Published in the July/August 2009 issue of the journal Child Development, it was conducted by researchers at Maastricht University Medical Centre and the University Medical Centre St. Radboud.

The scientists studied about 100 healthy pregnant Dutch women and their fetuses, measuring changes in how the fetus responds to repeated stimulation. After receiving a number of stimuli, the fetus no longer responds to the stimulus as observed by ultrasonography and the stimulus is then accepted as “safe.” This change in response is called “habituation.” In a second session, the fetus “remembers” the stimulus and the number of stimuli needed for the fetus to habituate is then much smaller.

Based on their research, the scientists found the presence of fetal short-term memory of 10 minutes at 30 weeks. They determined this because a significantly lower number of stimuli was needed to reach habituation in a second session, which was performed 10 minutes after the first session. They also found that 34-week-old fetuses can store information and retrieve it four weeks later. Fetuses were tested at 30, 32, 34, and 36 weeks, and again at 38 weeks. The 34- and 36-week-old fetuses habituated much faster than the 38-week-old fetuses that had not been tested before. This implies that these fetuses have a memory of at least 4 weeks—the interval between the test at 34 weeks and that at 38 weeks.

“A better understanding of the normal development of the fetal central nervous system will lead to more insight into abnormalities, allowing prevention or extra care in the first years of life and, as a consequence, fewer problems in later life,” according to the study’s authors.

“It seems like every day we find out marvelous new things about the development of unborn children. We hope that this latest information helps people realize more clearly that the unborn are members of the human family with amazing capabilities and capacities like these built in from the moment of conception,” said Randall K. O’Bannon, director of education and research for the National Right to Life Educational Trust Fund.

A call to NARAL Pro-Choice America for comment on the implications of the research were not returned.

The Dutch medical team, meanwhile, said its findings could help obstetricians track the healthy development of unborn babies during pregnancy. The research was published in Child Development, a medical journal.

Scientists have been curious about fetal responses to sound for decades.

The first real study of “habituation” occurred in 1925 when researchers discovered that fetuses moved less when exposed to a beeping car horn. Since then, door buzzers and even electric toothbrushes have been used to help researchers understand the fetal environment – and the response of the unborn to such influences.

Beeps and buzzes were not always the tools of choice.

In 2003, psychologists and obstetricians at Queen’s University in Canada found a profound mother-baby link. In a study of 60 pregnant women, they found that the unborn babies preferred the voices of their own mothers – both before and after birth.

The heart rates of fetuses sped up when they heard their mother reading a poem, and slowed down when they heard a stranger’s voice – evidence of “sustained attention, memory and learning by the fetus,” said Barbara Kisilevsky, a professor of nursing who led the research.

The Queen’s group has also investigated fetal response to the father’s voice, concluding that if men try a little pre-natal vocalizing to their offspring, the newborn will later recognize the father’s voice.

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Journal references:  Dirix, CEH, and Nijhuis, JG, Jongsma, HW, and Hornstra, G. Aspects of Fetal Learning and Memory. Child Development, Vol. 80, Issue 4

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/jul/16/fetuses-found-to-have-memories/?source=newsletter_must-read-stories-today_more_news_carousel

Adapted from materials provided by Society for Research in Child Development, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.