Brain Activity in the Unborn

Dive Deeper
The earliest brain activity was recorded from a 45-day-old embryo;1 however, it is likely that the brain connections needed to create waves of activity are in place before this age. This is simply the earliest age that scientists have tried to record brain activity.
This 6-week-old embryo from an ectopic pregnancy is the same age as those whose brain activity was recorded. (Image Credit: Dr. Vilas Gayakwad, 26 February 2010, Public Domain)

In the 1950s, two pro-life researchers recorded brain activity from six very young embryos using an electroencephalogram (EEG). They wanted to understand the capabilities of young embryos. These embryos had to be removed because they had implanted in their mothers’ fallopian tubes, called an ectopic pregnancy. If an embryo grows too large inside a mother’s fallopian tubes, the fallopian tubes may rupture, causing severe internal bleeding and sometimes death. These researchers did not want to destroy the embryos, but had to remove them in order to save the mother’s life (personal communication with Winslow Borkowski’s son).

EEGs cannot tell scientists what a person is thinking and feeling, but they can show what state of consciousness a person is in, such as being asleep or awake. EEGs can also show that the brain is sensing and perceiving its environment. For example, we know that premature babies show brain responses to flashes of light at 26 weeks after conception.2

The scientists observed multiple brain rhythms from the embryos. This shows that the neurons were not randomly firing but were connected to one another and synchronizing their activity. The scientists observed two patterns that resembled different types of sleep, and they kept recording until they finally observed brain death.3 If the absence of brain activity signals brain death, then the presence of brain activity indicates brain life. This brain activity can clearly be seen 45 days after conception.

These EEG recordings from the frontal brain areas of a 45-day-old embryo show that even a young embryo has multiple patterns of brain activity similar to those seen in adults. Brain death is included for comparison. (Image Credit: Adapted from Borkowski and Bernstine, 1955)