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Does Learning Begin Prior to Birth?

November 4, 2015 by Rachel Wallach

Seed funding fuels interdisciplinary investigation of human learning and when it begins

Janet DiPietro, PhD, has been a leader in the field of fetal development and its relationship to newborn health for 25 years. But her most scientifically interesting project yet, she says, is a potentially groundbreaking new interdisciplinary study made possible by a small seed grant from the Science of Learning Institute, a priority of the Rising campaign.

DiPietro, associate dean for research and faculty and a professor of Population, Family, and Reproductive Health in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, and her collaborator, Kellie Tamashiro, PhD, associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the School of Medicine, are using the grant to find out whether fetuses learn in utero.

“A potential application down the road would perhaps be to identify fetal developmental issues, but the primary goal is a scientific one of understanding the science of human learning and when it begins,” DiPietro says.

Several studies have shown that newborns can distinguish their mothers’ voices from other women’s, indicating some fetal learning, using data collected after birth. “Associative learning,” or learning to expect a certain response following a given stimulus, has not yet been shown before birth.

Always interested in this research question, DiPietro had been stymied by the time and costs involved in developing the protocol that would allow her to develop sufficient data to apply for a National Institutes of Health preliminary grant.

The Science of Learning seed grants — based on an originating gift by an anonymous donor — are intended for just such situations by jumpstarting research that might not otherwise be possible.

“The Science of Learning grant allows me to try something completely new,” she says.

The idea is to evaluate whether a fetus can make an association between a particular musical passage of nine piano notes (the stimulus) and a change in the mother’s body position (the response). Researchers will play the passage and the mother will change her position (sit, stand, sit) several times. They will also play a different musical passage (the same notes played backward) with no relation to the mother’s behavior. They will then test for associative learning by playing both passages with no maternal position change. If the fetus responds (indicated by a change in heart rate) only to the first melody, DiPietro will infer that the fetus has learned to expect movement to accompany the passage. If so, it would be the first empirical evidence of fetal learning and — down the road — could indicate whether implications for child development after birth can be detected in utero.

“There is much to be discovered about the origins of human fetal learning,” she says. “Through this venture, we’re hoping to generate new tools for fetal research. If the fetus can learn to exhibit different responses to two sounds, this will enable new methodologies to test the detection, discrimination, and categorization of sounds in utero, which can ultimately be extrapolated to other sensory domains.”

The seed grant program fuels interdisciplinary collaboration by requiring investigators to partner with colleagues in other divisions, connecting areas of discovery or avenues of inquiry that usually remain separate.

Tamashiro, DiPietro’s fellow investigator, studies the effects on fetal development of prenatal stress and diet using animal subjects. Her expertise in the methods used in associative learning research is informing the brand-new protocol she and DiPietro are devising to monitor fetal development, which can be applied to future studies regardless of the outcome of this one.

The project, Tamashiro says, will shine an important light on the biological basis for normal and atypical fetal behavior. “Doing both human and animal work, we can go back and forth and test different questions about how things are developing differently and, in the very long run, how we might be able to fix things when they go wrong,” she says.

Not yet halfway through the two-year study period, DiPietro is happy to report that one hurdle has been crossed: she has found that maternal movement consistently produces an increase in fetal heart rate, which provides a foundation for moving forward with the study. To date, approximately 25 participants have been tested using the protocol, and the team is preparing to begin evaluating whether fetuses are making the connection.

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