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Six-Year Project Initiated to Map Fetal and Newborn Brains

By BiotechDaily International staff writers
Posted on 18 Jun 2013
A cutting-edge magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner combined with specially developed imaging techniques are being utilized to study pregnant women’s wombs and image their fetuses’ brains, even while they move.

Scientists from Guys’ and St. Thomas’ hospital (London, UK), King’s College, London (UK) , Imperial College, London (UK), and University of Oxford (UK) are involved in the research.

To deliver this project, new MRI facilities have been installed at St. Thomas’ Hospital, creating a dedicated imaging suite, integrated with the neonatal critical care unit and a wide bore scanner for fetal imaging. Philips Healthcare (Best, The Netherlands) has supplied the state-of-the-art Achieva TX MRI system and a Philips Avalon fetal monitor, and will be providing ongoing support to ensure the systems consistently provide peak performance.

The researchers will use the sophisticated imaging techniques to map how the human brain grows and forms connections, with the aim of mapping out for the first time how the brain assembles itself, and also observe how brain connections and patterns of activity, seen on older subjects, emerge as babies grow in the womb and just after birth. Up to 1,500 subjects will be studied to examine both normal development and also explore early signs of disabilities such as autism and attention deficit disorders. The goal is to generate a “connectome” of the fetal and infant brain, revealing the formation of brain structures such as the cerebral cortex, where thinking occurs, or the hippocampus, which is central to memory, and the connections between them.

Prof. David Edwards, director of the Centre for the Developing Brain at King’s, said, “We want to create a series of atlases showing the human brain at different stages in development. Eventually, we hope to have enough data to compare the brains of children who go on to develop normally with those who develop disorders such as autism and attention deficit disorders, so that we can see if such conditions have their origins in the way the brain developed in the womb.”

MRI is already used to image brains of unborn babies, frequently after ultrasound scanning have shown potential abnormalities, and it is also increasingly used to help in the management of premature babies and other vulnerable infants.

The data provided are becoming more important as new therapies are developed that can improve the outcome for infants at risk of long-term brain damage occurring around the time of birth. However, whereas established imaging techniques provide detailed anatomic data and reveal if there is structural brain damage, mapping of brain connectivity and emerging brain function is a task at the limits of current capabilities. Therefore, the team will have to develop both advanced imaging modalities and new strategies to analyze the images to extract the vital connectome data.

Jo Hajnal, professor of imaging science at King’s, a physicist who specializes in imaging subjects who cannot remain still while they are scanned, said “We will scan about 1,500 children; about 500 will be fetuses, another 500 will be newborn normal babies, and the rest will be at-risk babies, including 200 premature babies and about 300 babies identified as being at higher risk of development autism. The fetal scans let us look back into the womb and see how the brain assembles itself, while the normal babies will give us a sense of just what a brain looks like, and how it works when a person enters the world. We can compare these images with what we see in the brains of at-risk babies and maybe find out what makes them different.”

Once the images have been collected, advanced computational analysis techniques will be developed and applied to extract connectome information. This critical part of the project will be led by Prof. Daniel Rueckert, department of computing, Imperial College London, and Prof. Steve Smith of Oxford University’s Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain.

Related Links:

Guys’ and St. Thomas’
King’s College, London
Philips Healthcare



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