A mother’s exercise might give her child a head start. Babies born to women who exercised during pregnancy have more-mature brains, suggesting that staying active may be good for all concerned.
Earlier work hinted that such children had better communication skills at age 5 and that they scored higher on intelligence tests. However, these studies relied on women remembering how much exercise they had done while pregnant.
To investigate, a team led by Élise Labonté-LeMoyne at the University of Montreal randomly assigned 29 pregnant women to one of two groups. Starting when they were around 13 weeks pregnant, one group did at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise such as brisk walking, swimming or cycling three times a week; the other group stopped exercising completely.
When the babies were 8 to 10 days old, researchers played them repetitive tones and novel sounds while recording electrical activity in their brains.
“We were looking at the brain’s ability to discriminate between sounds — because it’s the basis of language,” says Labonté-LeMoyne, who presented the results at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego last week. Mature brains use less energy to tell sounds apart, she says. “The task was easier for babies whose mothers exercised.”
It may be that exercise boosts levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a chemical released during exercise that is associated with better brain function in adults.
“This is consistent with research showing that the experiences a baby has in the womb can change the development of their brain,” says Vivette Glover at Imperial College London. “It will be interesting to see whether exercise during pregnancy has long-lasting effects on the child.”