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February 10, 2002

It has been taken as fact by most researchers that babies cannot "learn" in the womb. The reason for this is that scientists have been unable to find any connections between neurons "brain cells" in the cerebrum of unborn infants. Without these connections, it was assumed, learning, as we understand the term, would be impossible.

However doctors in the Netherlands used sound to determine if an unborn baby could react, respond to and recognize a specific noise. They found that while a foetus moved when it first heard the sound, it later became used to the noise and did not react. According to the doctors, this showed the foetuses were able to remember the sound and "learn" it was harmless.

The doctors carried out a study on 25 unborn babies between 37 and 40 weeks old. They applied an acoustic sound to the womb and directed it above the unborn baby's leg. Each of the foetuses reacted. They determined whether the unborn baby had "learnt" not to react to the sound if their body no longer moved after four consecutive sounds. They applied consecutive sounds at three different intervals; initially, 10 minutes later and 24 hours later.

Dr Cathelijne van Heteren from University Hospital Maastricht said the study showed foetuses had both short- and long-term memories. "Compared with the initial habituation test, foetuses not only habituated more rapidly 10 minutes later but also after 24 hours. We therefore conclude that foetuses have a short-term memory of at least 10 minutes and a long-term memory of at least 24 hours." She added: "Foetuses are able to memorize the stimuli in utero, although they may need more than one stimulus to establish recognition."

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