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UF research adds to evidence that unborn children hear 'melody' of speech

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- It is well known that unborn babies can recognize their mothers' voices and distinguish music from noise. But exactly what they hear remains unclear.

Now, scientists at the University of Florida have added a piece to the puzzle. In a series of unique experiments on a pregnant ewe designed to record exactly what sounds reach the fetal ear, UF research has bolstered previous findings suggesting that human fetuses likely hear mostly low-frequency rather than high-frequency sounds. That means they hear vowels rather than consonants and are more sensitive to the melodic parts of speech than to pitch, said Ken Gerhardt, a UF professor of communication sciences and disorders and an associate dean of the Graduate School.

As for music, "they're not going to hear the violins, but they will hear the drums," said Gerhardt, who led the research reported in the November-December issue of the journal Audiology and Neuro Otology.

Anthony DeCasper, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, said the UF results are noteworthy because they were obtained from the inner ear, which presumably would register sounds exactly as a sheep fetus would hear them. The findings which resulted from implanting a tiny electronic device in the inner ear of a fetal sheep that tapped into the signal the ear sends to the brain dovetail with what other researchers have concluded based on less invasive studies involving human fetuses, he said.

"The way I put it is, the way the mother's voice would sound in utero would be like Lauren Bacall speaking from behind a heavy curtain," DeCasper said.

The research also may have implications for the care of premature babies. Neonatal care units are traditionally relatively noisy places, replete with beeping machines and the hum of conversation, and research by Gerhardt, DeCasper and others is raising awareness and questions about how the sounds "premies" are exposed
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Contact: Ken Gerhardt
gerhardt@csd.ufl.edu
352-392-6622
University of Florida
22-Jan-2004


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