Foetuses feel the rhythm

June 20, 1997

Three research projects reveal the many roles music can play

MUSIC may prove the key to detecting learning difficulties in children while they are still in the womb.

Research at the University of Nottingham has shown that if most foetuses are played tunes over and over again they will eventually remember them and stop responding. This memory appears to last even after they are born.

David James, professor of fetomaternal medicine at the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham, said the study was such a sophisticated test of brain function that it could allow scientists to identify foetuses with disabilities.

Babies who continue to respond to the repeated stimuli in the same way may indicate some difficulty, likely to last after birth.

"Once we have defined what is normal, we would wish to use it as a tool to look at what is happening in the womb," he said.

This will give us a handle on how different pathologies affect brain development." Of the disabled children picked up in childhood, two-thirds were affected before labour and delivery, he said.

"Children with learning disabilities are sometimes not identified until they start school. But this may allow us to pick up subtle learning difficulties very early."

Experiments have so far been carried out only at the end of pregnancy. But Professor James said it was possible factors affecting learning were present right at the beginning of a baby's development. "We are still just scratching the surface of this," he said. "It does open up all sorts of ethical questions."

Professor James has played Glen Miller's Little Brown Jug, the opening sequences of Carmina Burana, and tapes of mothers' voices to more than 100 unborn babies in the last 18 months.

The babies hear the tunes about 20 times on three separate occasions over a week to ten days, via an earphone placed over the mother's stomach. The experiment starts about two weeks before the baby is due and the child is tested again a week after the delivery.

A computer measures the effect of hearing these tunes on a baby's movement and heart rate, compared with the effect on babies who have never heard the music before. There is clear evidence that the two groups respond differently.

Professor James said the two tunes had been selected because they were both rhythmic and varied in volume.

Using different tunes allowed researchers to ensure babies had stopped responding because they remembered the tune, rather than just because they were tired.

No work had yet been done on whether babies showed any preference for different kinds of music, but it appeared they could respond to different tones because they knew their mother's voice.

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