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Spina bifida: Parents hope surgery in womb will help son walk

Babies can hear syllables in the womb, says research

Baby's ear

Linguistic processes appear to develop long before birth

Scientists say babies decipher speech as early as three months before birth.

The evidence comes from detailed brain scans of 12 infants born prematurely.

At just 28 weeks’ gestation, the babies appeared to discriminate between different syllables like “ga” and “ba” as well as male and female voices.

Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the French team said it was unlikely the babies’ experience outside the womb would have affected their findings.

The research lends support to the idea that babies develop language skills while still in the womb in response to their parents’ voices.

Babies hear can hear their mother’s voice in the womb and pick up on the pitch and rhythm”

Prof Sophie ScottSpeech perception expert at UCL

Experts already know that babies are able to hear noises in the womb – the ear and the auditory part of the brain that allow this are formed by around 23 weeks’ gestation.

But it is still debated whether humans are born with an innate ability to process speech or whether this is something acquired through learning after birth.

The authors of the study in PNAS say environmental factors are undoubtedly important, but based on their findings they believe linguistic processes are innate.

Dr Fabrice Wallois and colleagues say: “Our results demonstrate that the human brain, at the very onset of the establishment of a cortical circuit for auditory perception, already discriminates subtle differences in speech syllables.”

But they add that this “does not challenge the fact that experience is also crucial for their fine tuning and for learning the specific properties of the native language”.

Their brain scan study was carried out in the first few days following birth, so it is possible that the noises and sounds the newborns encountered in their new environment outside of the womb may have triggered rapid development. However, the researchers doubt this.

Prof Sophie Scott, an expert in speech perception at University College London, said the findings supported and added to current knowledge.

“We know that babies hear can hear their mother’s voice in the womb and pick up on the pitch and rhythm.

“And they use this information – newborn babies are soothed by their mother’s voice from the minute they are born.”


Light in womb ‘gives healthy eyes’ – in mice


Light passing through the body and into the womb has an important role in the developing eye, US researchers have discovered.

A study, published in the journal Nature, showed that mice spending pregnancy in complete darkness had babies with altered eye development.

It indicated tiny quantities of light were needed to control blood vessel growth in the eye.

The researchers hope the findings will aid understanding of eye disorders.

Light or dark?

If you could journey inside a mouse or a person, there would not be enough light to see. However, tiny quantities of light do pass through the body.

This effect has already been used to film an infection spreading through the body.

It’s not something subtle here, it’s a major effect on the way the retina develops”

Prof Richard LangCincinnati Children’s Hospital

Now scientists – at the University of California, San Francisco, and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center – believe that body-penetrating light can alter the development of the eye, at least in mice.

Normally, a network of blood vessels known as the hyaloid vasculature is formed to help nourish the retina as it is constructed.

However, the blood vessels would disrupt sight if they remained, so they are later removed – like scaffolding from a finished building.

The researchers said this did not happen when the pregnancy was spent in total darkness.

The critical period was around 16 days – which is very late in mouse gestation, but corresponds to the first trimester in people.

“It’s not something subtle here, it’s a major effect on the way the retina develops that requires light going through the body,” said Prof Richard Lang, from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

He said it was a “huge surprise” that this was happening.

Premature babies

The researchers hope their findings may aid understanding of human diseases of the eye, as many are down to blood vessels.

Some babies born prematurely develop “retinopathy of prematurity”, when the blood vessels in the eye grow abnormally resulting in damage to the retina and a loss of vision.

Prof Lang said: “In retinopathy of prematurity there is overgrowth of blood vessels and that’s what you see in these mice.”

The researchers showed that light was activating in the mice a protein, melanopsin, which also has a role in regulating the body clock, and is present in people. However, whether the same processes take place in people or other animals is unknown.

Prof Robin Ali, from University College London, said it was a “fascinating study”.

He said more research was still needed, but the findings may lead to considerations of light levels during pregnancy and efforts to grow retinas in the laboratory.

He said: “It gives us a whole new aspect to consider in in the development of the retina.

“It illustrates how much we’ve yet to understand about the eye.”


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