Unborn babies `hear music' in womb

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THE FIRST definitive evidence that babies can hear music in the womb has been obtained by researchers using an experimental body scanner.

Scientists from the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham used the device, which has a high-speed imaging system, to scan three pregnant women while a nursery rhyme was piped through a loudspeaker to a point near their abdomens. The song was played for 15 seconds and the scientists observed a sharp increase in brain activity in two of the foetuses.

The finding, published in The Lancet, will fuel the debate about when intellectual development begins. Some researchers have claimed that the unborn foetus can be stimulated to boost its learning ability, affecting its school performance years later.

In the new study, Dr Penny Gowland and her colleagues searched for brain activity in the foetus at 38 or 39 weeks of gestation, just before birth. The team scanned about a dozen women, of whom the foetuses of 10 have shown a response.

"We have shown that they can hear in the womb at late gestation," said Dr Gowland.

"The question is whether that is habituation. People can read what they want into it. If they wish to start playing music [to the foetus] that is up to them. But learning is not the same as consciousness. All we are seeing are changes in the blood-oxygen levels in the brain," she said.

The value of the scan, which is now being refined so that it can be applied earlier in pregnancy, is more likely to lie in the detection of brain abnormalities before birth, Dr Gowland said. In cerebral palsy, for example, where babies may be born severely disabled, an important question is when the brain damage was caused.

"The problem is showing whether the damage was done before or after delivery," Dr Gowland said.