Wiggle womb: Science explains how vital movement is to growing babies

Mum holding hands in heart shape over her belly

A new study looking at how chicks and baby mice grow suggests that the movement growing babies execute in utero helps to develop their bones, joints and muscles and make them strong little human beings.

Movement is a recipe for strong bones

Researchers found that this movement in embryos activates vital molecular interactions, guiding cells and tissue to develop into a “functionally robust yet malleable skeleton“.

These signals were especially important in these early stages of pregnancy, when they play a very important part in ensuring the development of healthy bones and cartilage.

The embryo’s cells tap into these movement-activated signals, which are a kind of recipe for building the optimal skeletal structure and putting the right tissue in the right places. Some signals encourage cells to develop strong bones while others spark smooth and lubricated cartilage. They all combine to create a healthy bone structure for the growing baby.

Correcting mixed signals 

Professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin, Paula Murphy, co-led the study. She said a lack of movement in developing embryos may spark the sort of mixed signals that result in brittle bones or weak joints. 

“Our new findings show that in the absence of embryonic movement the cells that should form articular cartilage receive incorrect molecular signals, where one type of signal is lost while another inappropriate signal is activated in its place,” Professor Murphy explained. 

“In short, the cells receive the signal that says ‘make bone’ when they should receive the signal that says ‘make cartilage’.”

Researchers are now working on ways to correct these mixed messages, to safeguard the healthy bones and joints of future babies and adults.

Improving bone and joint strength in adults

Professor Murphy said that these new findings would also help to tackle conditions that affect the bones and joints of adults.

“The relative lack of understanding around how cartilage was directed presented an unfortunate knowledge gap because there are many painful, debilitating diseases that affect joints — like osteoarthritis — and because we also often injure our joints, which leads to them losing this protective cartilage cover.”

This is so interesting! Anything that helps ensure strong and healthy babies and grown-ups gets a HUGE tick of approval from us.

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