Moderate Exercise During Pregnancy Enhances Newborn Brain Development

Moderate exercise during pregnancy enhances newborn brain development

According to a new study, moderate exercise during pregnancy enhances newborn brain development. The findings indicate that as little as 20 minutes of exercise, three times weekly during pregnancy, is sufficient to boost brain activity in newborn babies.

The novel study was conducted by researchers from the University of Montreal and CHU Sainte-Justine children’s hospital.

Professor Dave Ellemberg, who led the new research initiative, recently discussed how this exercise could give newborns that much-needed head-start, before going on to explain how his team’s study was substantiated by prior animal studies, during a recent press statement:

“Our research indicates that exercise during pregnancy enhances the newborn child’s brain development… While animal studies have shown similar results, this is the first randomized controlled trial in humans to objectively measure the impact of exercise during pregnancy directly on the newborn’s brain.”

The findings were presented during this year’s Neuroscience 2013 conference in San Diego, California, with Ellemberg in attendance, alongside his research associates, Professor Daniel Curnier and Élise Labonté-LeMoyne.

The Study Findings

The study was organized to assess the impact of physical exercise during the second trimester of pregnancy, and onwards. Women were randomly designated to one of two groups – an “exercise group” or a “sedentary group.”

Women from the exercise group were instructed to perform a minimum of 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, three times per week, at moderate intensity; this type of exercise was performed until the pregnant women started to become breathless. Meanwhile, those participants that were assigned to the sedentary group were not given any exercise regimen to follow.

To ascertain whether this exercise led to any tangible differences in brain activity and development, each of the subject’s newborns were assessed eight to 12 days following pregnancy, using electroencephalography (ECG). Labonté-LeMoyne explained that 124 soft ECG electrodes were positioned over each infant’s head, until they fell asleep in their mother’s arms.

Baby with 124 soft electrodes placed over the head
Newborn baby hooked up to 124 soft electrodes, ready for ECG measurements to be taken (Source credit: Universite de Montreal)

During the child’s slumber, electrical readings were monitored to measure “auditory memory.” Essentially, the unconscious response that occurred, following repetition of novel sounds, was observed by the ensuing change in electrical activity of the infant’s brain.

This technique of measuring functional neural activation in newborns is called mismatch negativity (MMN), and involves presenting rare stimulus to the infant in a sequence of repetitive sounds. Researchers believe that MMN is an accurate measure of a newborn’s cognitive capabilities, with earlier and stronger MMN waveforms highly indicative of greater developmental maturity.

Speaking to the Vancouver Sun, Labonté-LeMoyne explained the importance of this technique, based upon the young child’s developmental stage, which limits the type of tests that they are capable of conducting:

“… the ability to discriminate sound is very important in language development and it is something that is present at birth, whereas most other cognitive functions aren’t quite there yet.”

The group found that newborns from those mothers that were more physically proactive during pregnancy were more likely to have a more “mature cerebral activation.” The researchers conjecture this capacity to be an indication that their brains developed at a faster rate.

The Future

Ellemberg spoke about the future implications of his group’s work, and how it could shape public health recommendations in pregnant women:

“We hope these results will guide public health interventions and research on brain plasticity. Most of all, we are optimistic that this will encourage women to change their health habits, given that the simple act of exercising during pregnancy could make a difference for their child’s future.”

Meanwhile, one of the study’s co-authors, Daniel Curnier, explained how their findings almost completely contradict the recommendations given by medical practitioners, who typically suggest pregnant females get plenty of rest.

Curnier elaborates that their study is substantiated by similar animal studies. For example, maternal exercise in rats has been proven to improve the development of the fetal brain in rat pups. One such study, performed by Arkhavan et al., (2008) showed that running and swimming during pregnancy helped to increase part of the brain, called the hippocampus, in the resulting pups; this is believed to have aided the young pups in learning to navigate around experimental mazes, following maturation.

In 2012, a paper called Physical Exercise During Pregnancy: a Systematic Review, found physical exercise to offer greater physiological benefits to females, ranging from improved cardiovascular fitness to reduced chances of developing gestational diabetes. The group also found there to be no danger attributed to exercise in pregnant females, included in their research review.

The group remain uncertain as to the exact mechanisms involved in maternal exercise and improvements in newborn cognition. However, they theorize that moderate physical activity could lead to improved oxygen uptake in the mother, which has a concomitant benefit to the developing fetus.

Ellemberg and colleagues are currently in the process of interpreting the cognitive, language and motor proficiencies between each individual group, when each child reaches one years of age.

By James Fenner

Press Release

Trial Proposal

Journal of Pregnancy

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Elsevier Journal

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