Research work which examined the visual perception of babies in the womb carried out at the University of Cumbria ultrasound laboratory in Lancaster and Blackpool Victoria Hospital has prompted significant international interest.
Researchers who used a light source to project a pattern of three dots in the shape of eyes and a mouth through the uterine wall and measured the way the fetus responded using ultrasound found that fetuses at 34 weeks are like newborn babies in preferring face-like stimuli.
“The findings show that fetuses of 34 weeks gestation will turn their head to track the face-like pattern,” Dr Tim Donovan, associate professor in medical and sports science who was part of the team involved in the work led by Professor Vincent Reid at Lancaster University. “But there was no such movement when the team projected three inverted dots in the shape of a triangle, demonstrating that it was not the pattern itself which the fetus preferred. The study is recorded in the top 5% of all research outputs ever tracked by specialist data science company Altmetric.”
Lead researcher was developmental psychologist Professor Vincent Reid from Lancaster University who worked with the team at the University of Cumbria to carry out the work which is now published in Current Biology.
The discovery was made possible through advances in technology such as high quality 4D ultrasound and the modelling of light penetration through human tissue.
As a result a new field of research could well be opened up; an improved light source could help with plans to examine other aspects of fetal perception and cognition via visual systems.
“I’ve never experienced so much interest in one paper and the debate the work has prompted is encouraging,” Dr Donovan said.