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Mapping the unborn baby's brain to better combat disease

Mapping the unborn baby's brain to better combat disease
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Thanks to state-of-the-art technology, doctors at King’s College London are mapping the brains of babies while they are still in the womb.

Traditional MRI scanners work by taking a series of cross-sectional images that are then are reconstructed into 3D images. Conventionally, subjects entering an MRI scanner must remain as still as possible and are often held in place to make sure the scans are clear.

This is obviously impossible with foetuses, which float in the womb and are therefore in continual movement. Until recently, the only way to scan a foetus was to use single shot techniques to “freeze” motion.

But this breakthrough software enables doctors to take scans during movement, making it possible, for the first time, to see individual nerve connections forming in the baby’s brain and draw up a map, which scientists are calling the Connectome.

The research is being led by Professor David Edwards, consultant neonatologist and professor of Paediatrics at King’s College London.

“The Connectome will provide a map so that we can understand what’s going on in the brain and provide a context for all the other information we have. At the moment we know a lot about how the brain works, we know a lot about the molecules in the brain, how the messages are sent from one nerve fibre to another, but it’s very difficult to put that in context because we don’t have a map in which to place all that information, and even more, for our case, we don’t have a map that changes over time. So what we will have is a four-dimensional map – three spacial dimensions and one dimension of time – in which we can place new information, or indeed old information that we already know about the brain to understand how things work in context,” says Professor Edwards.

Problems before or during birth can have severe implications for the child, which sometimes only become apparent years later. Scientists are still uncertain about what causes certain diseases like autism, for example. Some identified genes have been associated with the disorder but it’s also believed abnormalities could result from a disruption in foetal brain development. Premature babies are particularly vulnerable of the disruption to their neurological development.

“We’re very interested in how development might be not quite right, how the brain might develop slightly abnormally and give you problems with understanding things, or problems with social relations, so we’re interested in how children might develop autism, or attention deficit disorder, or other things like that, or cerebral palsy. We’re interested in why the brain might go wrong and how the connections in the brain might be the cause, or the method by which that happens,” says Professor Edwards.

For the parents taking part in the research there is an added bonus. They get to see the most extraordinary images of their baby’s development. Laura Crittenden has a two-year old daughter and is now looking forward to the birth of her second baby.

“I’m really, really nosey so I like to know what’s going on. I’m quite self-aware of what’s going on in there, so to actually have the images on top of that is pretty special really, to be able to see what they’re doing and how they’re growing. I always love the sonography so anything even more than that is brilliant,” she says.

Functional MRI scans have meant that for years now scientists have been able to see which parts of the brain are activated by fear or addiction for example. Some are even trying to understand desire. This new technology could help discover more.

“We imaged the way water moves in the brain, and water tends to move up and down nerve fibres, so we can watch the movement of water up and down nerve fibres and infer where the nerve fibres are. And we also measure function, we can see how the blood flow is changing in the brain. And when the brain activates a certain area it needs more blood, we can see that, so we can infer from the blood flow changes which bits of brain are active and see which bits of brain are working together, and so we have the function of the brain by that method,” says Professor Edwards.

Focussing on more than 1,500 babies, the Developing Human Connectome Project studies many aspects of their neurological development, in the hope of one day being able to diagnose disorders early and better treat infants.