Exercise while pregnant may boost baby’s brain

Babies born to moms who worked out while pregnant had signs of higher levels of brain maturity, as shown by measurements of electrical activity in brains of babies 8 to 12 days old.

University of Montreal

This week, Baby V and I have joined more than 30,000 neuroscientists in San Diego for the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting. We’ve wandered the miles of posters, dropped in on talks and generally soaked up the brain waves floating around this massive meeting of minds.

We’ve worked up a sweat more than once rushing around the meeting, so it’s nice to be reminded of all the exciting research on the benefits of physical exercise on the brain. Evidence is piling up that a fit body is one of the absolute best things you can do for a fit mind. And a study presented November 10 shows that if you’re pregnant, the benefits of exercise extend to your baby’s brain too.

Researchers from the University of Montreal asked pregnant women to exercise three times a week for 20 minutes until they were slightly short of breath. Other pregnant women didn’t exercise.  Eight to 12 days after the babies were born, the team recorded the electrical activity in sleeping babies’ brains.

Babies born to moms who exercised showed more localized brain activity patterns in response to sounds, the researchers found. This targeted brain activity is a sign of brain maturity, indicating that the brain is becoming more efficient. Babies whose mothers didn’t exercise during pregnancy showed more diffuse brain responses to sounds. The scientists plan on looking for lasting benefits by testing the babies at age 1.

Studies in rodents have found benefits of exercise during pregnancy: Rats born to moms who worked out have brains that are more resistant to low oxygen conditions, for instance. Maternal exercise boosts levels of cellular powerhouses called mitochondria in rat pups’ brains.  And exercise during pregnancy resulted in more newborn neurons in the mouse hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory. Now, this new study suggests that some of these benefits might extend to people, too.

So, exercise is good for mom and good for baby. Now Baby V and I just need to find a study that reports exercise — specifically, walking miles and miles at a neuroscience conference — helps a baby to sleep through the night.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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