"We believe this shows how well the brain at this age adapts to sounds. It is a sign of very early language learning, or adaptation to the sounds they hear," said study co-author Minna Huotilainen, from the University of Helsinki's Finnish Center of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research.
"A newborn baby is not an empty canvas, but has already learned how his or her mother and other family members speak," said Huotilainen.
Researchers tested the memory of Finnish fetuses by exposing them to a single word – ‘tatata’ – which has no meaning in the Finnish language.
"It is a so-called 'pseudoword' that is important for research. It has three syllables, and we chose such a long word to make it challenging for the small brains to find the changes and give them something difficult to learn. Such a word could exist in Finnish. It follows all the rules of the Finnish language," Huotilainen said.
From the 29th week of pregnancy until birth, about half of the 33 pregnant women in the study listened to recordings of the word repeated hundreds of times.
Sometimes the recordings presented the word with a different middle syllable ("to") or pronounced differently.
Researchers used scans to test the activity in the brains of all the babies when they heard the word after their birth. Those who had heard it before showed an enhanced reaction to this specific word.
"They were able to process the word better, and also they were able to detect changes in the word better," Huotilainen said.


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