'Neighbours' theme learned in the womb

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A HEAVILY pregnant woman lies on a couch in an antenatal clinic while the theme tune from the BBC soap opera, Neighbours, is relayed to her unborn baby through a speaker, taped to her abdomen.

As it plays, every movement the baby makes and its heart rate are monitored by ultrasound. Bizarre as it seems, this experiment is contributing to research which is revealing that memory develops in the womb.

Leading the research is Professor Peter Hopper, of the school of psychology at Queen's University, Belfast. His department has just been awarded a pounds 35,000 grant by the Wellcome Trust to set up the world's first research centre dedicated to the study of foetal behaviour.

'Nothing much has been known about foetal behaviour,' he said. 'The general view has been that new-borns are not able to do very much: they are born with reflexes but have no memory. We have been able to prove memory develops earlier.'

His team has demonstrated that 36-week-old foetuses who have been consistently exposed to a soap theme throughout pregnancy, react as if they have heard it before.

The research was carried out on 70 women at Belfast's Royal Maternity Hospital, half of whom regularly watch Neighbours. When the theme was relayed to the foetuses of the soap's watchers, they become significantly more active. But when an unfamiliar tune was played to them, or the Neighbours theme was played to foetuses who had not been previously exposed to it, there was no such response.

'This shows foetuses of this age have a memory and can recognise familiar tunes,' Professor Hepper said.

The earliest sign of a cognitive process in a foetus was provoked at 24 weeks. After repeatedly exposure to the same sound, response in terms of heart rate changed and sudden movements eventually waned. 'It's the first evidence of learning we have in a foetus,' said Professor Hepper.

The long term aim is to establish a new method of pre-natal testing, which has been limited in the kinds of abnormalities it can test for.

Tests relying on tissue samples can only be used to detect genetic, chromosomal or metabolic abnormalities, while ultrasound is mainly to pinpoint physical abnormalities.

But by studying foetal behaviour, Professor Hepper believes tests could be developed to detect a wide range of disorders affecting the nervous system including deafness, blindness, and the severely brain-damaged.

Already Professor Hepper's team has managed to identify two congenitally deaf babies before they were born. As a result, the mothers of these babies have been able to 'sign' to their babies right from birth rather than communicate through talking.