BBC News Online
Development in the womb has been hard to monitor.
Doctors have been able to show that babies can hear music before birth, after observing foetal brain activity directly for the first time. The discovery will allow them to monitor foetal brain development using a special type of brain scan, known as functional magnetic resonance imaging.
In the past, doctors were only able to judge development indirectly by looking for physical movement in response to stimulation.
But using a new technique they were able to detect a striking increase in brain activity, when music was played to babies in the womb.
In a study to develop the technique, three pregnant women were given a scan.
Beforehand, they had been asked to record a nursery rhyme. This was played down a tube to near the mother's abdomen for 15 seconds, followed by 15 seconds silence.
The recording was played in this way 18 times, during which the babies' brain activity was measured, and an increase in activity was noted in two of the three babies.
The study was performed at Nottingham University and published in the Lancet medical journal.
Dr Penny Gowland, a physics lecturer at the university, told BBC News Online it was the first time an unborn child's brain activity had been directly observed. "So far all we've done is shown that we're able to do it," she said.
However, since the paper was sent to Lancet, she said, the team had tested the technique on more babies and had a similar success rate.
"We want to go on and study normal brain development in the foetus, and set a baseline for what normal brain activity is. Ultimately we want to see how brain function is altered in compromised pregnancies where the baby isn't growing properly."
(edited by David Van Alstyne)
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