A French research team has found that babies can decipher speech as early as three months before birth.
The evidence comes from detailed brain scans of 12 infants born prematurely.
At just 28 weeks’ gestation, the babies appeared to discriminate between different syllables like “ga” and “ba” as well as male and female voices.
Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the French team said it was unlikely the babies’ experience outside the womb would have affected their findings.
The research lends support to the idea that babies develop language skills while still in the womb in response to their parents’ voices.
Experts already know that babies are able to hear noises in the womb – the ear and the auditory part of the brain that allow this are formed by around 23 weeks’ gestation.
But it is still debated whether humans are born with an innate ability to process speech or whether this is something acquired through learning after birth.
A French research team has found that babies can decipher speech as early as three months before birth
The authors of the study in PNAS say environmental factors are undoubtedly important, but based on their findings they believe linguistic processes are innate.
Dr. Fabrice Wallois and colleagues say: “Our results demonstrate that the human brain, at the very onset of the establishment of a cortical circuit for auditory perception, already discriminates subtle differences in speech syllables.”
But they add that this “does not challenge the fact that experience is also crucial for their fine tuning and for learning the specific properties of the native language”.
Their brain scan study was carried out in the first few days following birth, so it is possible that the noises and sounds the newborns encountered in their new environment outside of the womb may have triggered rapid development. However, the researchers doubt this.
US researchers have used a blood sample from mother and saliva from father to sequence the genome of a foetus in the womb.
At the time, the mother was just 18 weeks into the pregnancy.
The doctors said the findings, reported in Science Translational Medicine, could eventually lead to foetuses being screened for thousands of genetic disorders in a single and safe test.
However, they also caution it would raise “many ethical questions”.
US researchers have used a blood sample from mother and saliva from father to sequence the genome of a foetus in the womb
The scientists at the University of Washington used pieces of the foetus’ DNA which naturally float around in the pregnant woman’s blood.
These fragments were then pieced together using the parents’ DNA as a guide to build a complete “map” of the foetus’s genome.
They then compared the genetic map drawn 18 weeks into pregnancy with the foetus’ actual DNA taken from the umbilical cord after birth. It was 98% accurate.
The researchers hope their findings will one day be used to test safely for genetic diseases.
Tests do already exist such as those for Down’s syndrome. To test for Down’s syndrome a sample is taken from the sac around the developing foetus, which comes with a risk of miscarriage.
They also say new genetic defects, which are not present in the parents, could be picked up if the technique could be improved. Such mutations form in the eggs, sperm or at conception.
There were 44 new mutations in the foetus and the screen at 18 weeks found 39 of them. However, the screening also detected 25 million possible new mutations or false positives.
One of the researchers, Dr. Jay Shendure, said: “This work opens up the possibility that we will be able to scan the whole genome of the foetus for more than 3,000 single-gene disorders through a single, non-invasive test.”