The first batch of baby brain scans was released last week by a landmark UK project to map how the human brain develops in unprecedented detail.
The Developing Human Connectome Project by researchers at Imperial College London, King’s College London and the University of Oxford uses new techniques to achieve high-resolution images of 40 newborn baby brains through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology.
The project’s main aim is to create the world’s first detailed maps of the developing human brain from a gestational age of 20 to 44 weeks. The team hope this information will increase understanding of how conditions such as autism and cerebral palsy develop, and how problems in pregnancy can affect development of the fetal brain.
However, a major challenge with imaging fetuses and babies is their movement. 'The challenge is that you are imaging one person inside another person and both of them move,' Professor Jo Hajnal of King’s College London told the Guardian. Together with colleagues, he developed a new MRI technique to specifically provide high-resolution scans of newborn and fetal brains.
The researchers obtained high-quality scans by imaging the pregnant women or newborn baby every second, and then assembling these pictures into 3D images. They also tweaked the imaging technique to reduce noise from the MRI machine, to help prevent babies waking up during the process.
But even when a baby or fetus is asleep, they still make little movements. The scientists also developed computational techniques to correct for these slight movements and maintain image clarity.
'The [project] is a major advance in understanding human brain development - it will provide the first map of how the brain’s connections develop, and how this goes wrong in disease,' said lead principal investigator, Professor David Edwards of King's College London.
Hundreds of thousands more images of 1000 babies will be released in the coming months, including scans from 500 babies still in the womb.
The collaboration, which has three more years to run, is funded by a €15 million Synergy Grant from the European Research Council. One of the principal aims is to make the brain data widely accessible for scientific research.