Exercise boosts unborn baby's brain
IF A woman is physically active during pregnancy, she may boost the development of her unborn child's brain, according to a new study of expectant mothers and their newborns.
The findings bolster a growing scientific consensus that the benefits of exercise can begin to accumulate even before someone is born.
Scientists believe babies born to active mothers tend to have more robust cardiovascular systems from an early age than babies born to mothers who are more sedentary.
Researchers at the University of Montreal in Canada recently recruited a group of local women who were in their first trimester of pregnancy.
The women, who were all healthy, young non-athletes, were randomly assigned either to begin an exercise programme, commencing in their second trimester, or to remain sedentary.
The women in the exercise group were asked to work out for at least 20 minutes, three times a week, at a moderate intensity, equivalent to about a six or so on a scale of exertion from one to 10. Most of the women walked or jogged.
Every month, the women would visit the university's exercise lab, so researchers could monitor their fitness.
After about six months, the women gave birth. All had healthy boys or girls.
Within 12 days of birth, each of the newborns accompanied his or her mother to the lab. There, each baby was fitted with a little cap containing electrodes that monitor electrical activity in the brain.
Researchers then started a sound loop featuring a variety of low, soft sounds that recurred frequently, interspersed occasionally with more jarring, unfamiliar noises, while the baby's brain activity was recorded.
"Baby's brains respond to these kinds of sounds with a spike in certain types of brain activity," said researcher Elise Labonte-LeMoyne, who led the study.
This spike is most pronounced in immature brains, and diminishes as a newborn's brain develops and begins processing information more efficiently, she added.
Relevant brainwave activity soared in response to the novel sounds among the children born to mothers who had remained sedentary during pregnancy.
But it was noticeably blunted in the babies whose mothers had exercised. In essence, "their brains were more mature", Ms Labonte-LeMoyne said.
How gestational exercise can re-model an unborn child's brain is not clear, she admitted, since, unlike circulatory systems, a mother's brain is not hardwired directly to that of her child.
"But we suspect that when mum exercises, she generates a variety of chemicals, including many related to brain health, which can move into her bloodstream and eventually mingle with the blood of her baby," said Ms Labonte-LeMoyne.