Learning, the foundation of adaptive and intelligent behavior, is based on plastic changes in neural assemblies, reflected by the modulation of electric brain responses. In infancy, auditory learning implicates the formation and strengthening of neural long-term memory traces, improving discrimination skills, in particular those forming the prerequisites for speech perception and understanding. Although previous behavioral observations show that newborns react differentially to unfamiliar sounds vs. familiar sound material that they were exposed to as fetuses, the neural basis of fetal learning has not thus far been investigated. Here we demonstrate direct neural correlates of human fetal learning of speech-like auditory stimuli. We presented variants of words to fetuses; unlike infants with no exposure to these stimuli, the exposed fetuses showed enhanced brain activity (mismatch responses) in response to pitch changes for the trained variants after birth. Furthermore, a significant correlation existed between the amount of prenatal exposure and brain activity, with greater activity being associated with a higher amount of prenatal speech exposure. Moreover, the learning effect was generalized to other types of similar speech sounds not included in the training material. Consequently, our results indicate neural commitment specifically tuned to the speech features heard before birth and their memory representations.
Keywords: event-related potentials; mismatch negativity.