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Exercising mothers may boost babies brains

Researchers say that pregnant women who regularly work out might boost their children's brains.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2006 11:58 IST
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Pregnant mice who take daily runs boost the production of new brain cells in their babies; but investigators say it is premature to say whether the same could be true in humans.

Researchers already knew that exercise in adult animals can bump up the production of new neurons in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory. But now it seems that the effect can be passed from mother to offspring.

The team gave one group of pregnant mice a running wheel and kept another group without. Given the chance, the animals ran about two to three kilometres per night, although they cut back as their pregnancy progressed.

To track brain growth, the researchers injected pregnant mice with a dye that marked out newly formed neurons in their infants. They injected other babies with the dye directly, after they were born.

During pregnancy, exercise seemed to dampen the growth of neurons in the developing embryos; babies in the wombs of exercising mothers had roughly 20% fewer neurons three-quarters of the way through pregnancy. But by the time mice were five weeks old, the situation looked quite different. The offspring of exercising mums were forming more neurons, and their hippocampus contained around 40% more of these cells in total.

This was "surprising and amazing", says team leader Gerd Kempermann of the Max Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, Germany.

By the time mice were seven weeks of age, the rate of neuron production had evened out in the two groups. But the early dip and then boost could potentially have a lasting effect, they say.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1, raises the intriguing idea that pregnant women who regularly work out might also boost the birth of new neurons in their children's brains. The authors point to one study suggesting that the children of exercising mothers scored better on intelligence tests at the age of five.

But researchers are very cautious about making this leap. "It's an exciting idea, but the data aren't there yet," says Jennifer Bizon, who studies learning and memory at Texas A&M University, College Station.