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Exercise for Your Baby’s Brain

Being active during pregnancy may speed development of your baby’s brainBeing active during pregnancy may speed development of your baby’s brain. A study from Canada showed that jogging, swimming or cycling for as little as 20 minutes three times a week starting at the beginning of the second trimester made a measurable difference in the activity of the babies’ brains, according to researchers from the University of Montreal. The investigators divided 60 women into exercise and non-exercise groups. To check the effect of the exercise on the infants’ brains, the researchers measured the babies’ brain activity while they slept on their mothers’ laps when they were eight to 12 days old. The EEGs used for the test showed that the babies of the active mothers had a “more mature cerebral activation,” which suggests that their brains developed more rapidly than the offspring of women who didn’t exercise. This was the first study of the effect of exercise on human brain development. Earlier research has shown that exercise during pregnancy can ease post-partum recovery, make pregnancy more comfortable and reduce the risk of obesity in the children. The results of the brain study were presented on November 10, 2013 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

Press release, “Exercise during pregnancy gives newborn brain development a head start,” University of Montreal,” University of Montreal, accessed November 16, 2013,

Early Learning Boosts Brain Resilience

Childhood music lessons pay off much later in life by speeding brain responses to speech soundsDid you take music lessons in your youth? Can you speak a second language? New research suggests that being bilingual can stave off dementia for more than four years, and that childhood music lessons pay off much later in life by speeding brain responses to speech sounds. Scottish and Indian researchers reviewed the case histories of 684 seniors with dementia. Of this group, 391 spoke more than one language. The investigators found that that being bilingual delayed the progression of dementia, even in study subjects who were illiterate, a finding that demonstrated for the first time that education levels alone don’t explain the delay. However, the study found no additional advantage to knowing three or more languages. Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois found that taking music lessons for four to 14 years early in life paid off later by making possible recognition of a speech sound a millisecond faster than seniors who had no musical training. A millisecond may not seem like a big deal, but it is significant in terms of brain function. For the Northwestern study 44 healthy adults, ages 55-76, listened to a synthesized speech syllable (“da”) while researchers clocked electrical activity in the auditory brainstem, the brain region that processes sound. Childhood music lessons were related to faster brain responses, even in study participants who hadn’t played music in nearly 40 years, the researchers found.

My take? Mental exercise is vital to keeping sharp as we age. In general, the more education you have, the less likely you are to develop Alzheimer’s disease or to experience age-related cognitive decline; if you do experience them, they will appear later in life than in less educated people. Both of these new studies demonstrate again that using the brain is protective against age-related mental decline. The more learning you have had, the more connections you have in your brain, even if that learning took place during music lessons early in life or if you managed to master two languages, even without formal education or the ability to read.

Suvarna Alladi, et al, “Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status.” Neurology, 10.1212/01.wnl.0000436620.33155.a4; published ahead of print November 6, 2013

Nina Kraus et al, “Older adults benefit from music training early in life: biological evidence for long-term training-driven plasticity,” Journal of Neuroscience, doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2560-13.2013