Thursday, November 18, 2010

Newborns nurse long-term memories of smells

Odors babies encounter while breast-feeding remain favorites as toddlers

By Bruce Bower

Within a week after birth, babies inhale new memories at their mothers’ breasts. Newborns who whiff a specific odor while breast-feeding, even if they smell it for only eight days, prefer that same odor over others a year or more later, reports a team led by physiologist Benoist Schaal of the European Center of Taste Sciences in Dijon, France.

Like other infant mammals such as rats and pigs, human newborns easily learn and remember smells associated with breast-feeding, the scientists conclude in a paper scheduled to appear in Developmental Science. These types of odor memories form most robustly during the first week after birth, the researchers propose.

Odor memories acquired during breast-feeding can be reactivated and influence behavior until at least toddlerhood, in their view.

Related research has focused on infants’ memories for food flavors, which simultaneously engage the brain’s taste and smell systems.

“These new findings add to a growing body of scientific data showing the saliency of odors for mother-infant interaction and for forming memories throughout infancy,” remarks biopsychologist Julie Mennella of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

Other recent studies suggest that babies favor odors and flavors experienced prenatally in amniotic fluid as a result of a mother’s diet, Mennella notes.

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