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Prenatal Exercise May Give Newborns a Boost on Brain Development

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Babies of mothers who exercise three days a week may get a jump on early brain development, according to a study released at the Society for Neuroscience meeting here on Sunday.

A team of researchers from the University of Montreal in Canada recruited 29 women in their first trimester of pregnancy for the Healthy Mom, Bright Baby project. They were randomly assigned to either moderate exercise for 20 minutes, three times a week, or to be sedentary.

Ten exercising moms and eight who did not exercise completed the program. When their babies were 10 days old, the researchers attached an electro-encephalogram--a net of 124 soft electrodes attached to the scalp which measures electrical activity in the brain--to each baby and then let it fall asleep on its mothers lap (proving, if nothing else, that newborns' ability to sleep anywhere is inversely related to their parents' inability to do the same.)

Once the babies were in the active phase of sleep, researchers played a series of 2,000 musical tones, 85 percent harmonic and 15 percent dissonant. Previous studies have shown that as a child's brain matures, it reacts less and in different ways to this sound mismatch.

The infants whose mothers had exercised reacted significantly less to the sound mismatches, and their brain activity in response was centered in the left front of their brain, a more mature pattern of activity than that of the babies of sedentary moms, who showed activity throughout the brain in response to the sounds.

In spite of the tiny sample, the differences between the children of sedentary and exercising moms was significant. In the babies of fit moms, researchers also found higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that supports the growth of new brain cells and which has been associated with learning and memory.

"The bottom line is, as little as three days of exercise per week is not only good for the mother's health, but can also give a head start to the child's life," said Elise L. LeMoyne, a co-author of the study and a postdoctoral student in kinesiology at the University of Montreal, who spoke on the study at the conference.

It's unclear whether that head start would last long enough to give the children of more active mothers a boost when they start school, but the researchers plan to continue the study with more extensive cognitive testing when the babies are a year old.

Prior animal studies have found enhanced memory and spatial skills for the young whose mothers exercised while they were in the womb, and four prior studies also found benefits for older children of fit mothers, but this was the first study to test cognitive differences among newborns.

Photo: An infant sleeps while 124 electrodes measure its brain activity, during a study of brain development by the University of Montreal. Source: University of Montreal

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