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Brain cells start sending signals early

Fetal neurons show firing patterns similar to those seen in sleeping adults

5:17pm, February 15, 2011

The kicks and somersaults of a developing baby aren’t the only in utero calisthenics. Babies also flex their mental muscles months before birth.

Nerve cells from developing brains as young as 20 weeks old fire in a pattern that persists into adulthood, researchers report February 15 in the Journal of Neuroscience. The research provides a glimpse into the behavior of extremely young brain cells and could help scientists understand what happens when brain development goes awry.

Cells from the cerebral cortices of 20- to 21-week-old fetuses exhibit bursts of electrical activity interspersed with periods of quiet, researchers from the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington found. When the adult brain is sleeping, or under anesthesia, it also displays this busy-then-quiet firing pattern, suggesting it may be an intrinsic property of human brains.

The cerebral cortex deals with sensory information, thinking, emotion and consciousness. But even

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