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Studies of mice suggest the environment in the uterus can enhance the learning ability of offspring. Doctors already know many influences that can harm a developing fetus, such as exposure to drugs and alcohol, malnutrition and smoking. But researchers from the University of Connecticut and the Jackson Laboratory say this is the first study demonstrating that the womb can improve cognitive behavior.

The scientists took genetically identical mouse embryos from a species used to study autoimmune diseases and divided the embryos into three groups. One group was implanted into their natural mothers, another into mice of the same species and another into mice of a different breed.

Once the mice were 6 weeks old, the researchers gave each group a series of behavioral exams, testing whether they could learn mazes, escape from traps and perform other tasks. The mice that had developed in a foreign strain performed significantly better in the tests, the researchers reported in the British journal NeuroReport.

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