Amazing images show what happens in a newborn baby’s brain

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The project will help to understand how diseases like autism develop (The Developing Human Connectome Project)

Child nutrition (Early years), Childcare, Early childhood development, ​Learning through play (Early years), Safe pregnancy and birth

Scans of newborn babies have been published today that will help to show how diseases like autism develop or how pregnancy affects brain growth.

Cutting-edge scans have been published today – to give new insight into what happens to a baby’s brain after they are born.

The Developing Human Connectome Project (dHCP) – run by King’s College London – hopes these scans from 40 babies will help the team understand how diseases like autism develop or how pregnancy affects brain growth.

The project uses Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and has developed new techniques which allow the brains of fetuses and babies to be measured.

The team said: “While there is much more to come, the first release of images today will allow scientists around the world to start to explore these powerful images and begin mapping out the complexities of human brain development in a whole new way.”

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Findings show the wiring and function of the brain during pregnancy and how this changes after birth (The Developing Human Connectome Project)

A child’s brain undergoes an amazing period of development from birth to three – producing 700 new neural connections every second. By the age of five, the brain is 90% developed.

That’s why Theirworld’s #5for campaign is urging world leaders to invest in early childhood development and give every child the best start in life.

Lead Principal Investigator Professor David Edwards, said: “The Developing Human Connectome 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.”

He told the BBC: “It’s perfectly safe. There’s no radiation or X-rays involved. But we are incredibly grateful to the families who have taken part in this work. It’s contributing hugely to science.”

Researchers want to uncover how the brain develops, examine the wiring and function of the brain during pregnancy and see how this changes after birth. 

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The study focuses on the development of babies’ brains (The Developing Human Connectome Project)

They have even overcome problems caused by the babies’ movement and small size, as well as the difficulties in keeping vulnerable infants safe in the MRI scanner.

The research consortium is funded by a $16 million grant from the European Research Council. One of the project’s goals is to make sure the data is shared as widely as possible. 

The preliminary set released today will be followed by further data releases until a very large dataset, together with genetic and other information, will be available.

For the groundbreaking images to be produced, Professor Jo Hajnal’s team at King’s College London had to develop new MRI technology specifically designed to provide high-resolution scans of newborn and fetal brains.

A £2 million scanner is also being used to study brain images by researchers financed through the Jennifer Brown Fund – set up by Theirworld President Sarah Brown and husband Gordon.

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Images and methods are being shared online so that scientists from around the world can use the data in their own research (The Developing Human Connectome Project)

The fund launched the Edinburgh Birth Cohort, where babies are being tracked from birth to adulthood in a bid to find new ways of preventing and treating brain injuries in newborns.

Dr James Boardman, Scientific Director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory in Edinburgh, said: “The ongoing Developing Human Connectome Project is a tremendous achievement that is highly likely to yield new discoveries about typical brain development.

“The sharing of some of the image data from the project with the wider scientific community is welcomed – because pooling of research data to build very large datasets will enable scientists to answer new questions about population norms and the effect of genes on brain development.

 “The laboratory is building a repository of MRI data from premature babies and healthy babies born at term – the Theirworld Edinburgh Birth Cohort, that is unprecedented in its linkage to information about genetics, epigenetics, pregnancy complications, and neuropsychological, educational and social outcomes.”

Dr Boardman is also Consultant in Neonatal Medicine at the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh. He added: “The long-term follow-up of participants and families that we plan provides a unique opportunity for deepening understanding about the early life origins of neurological, cognitive and psychological difficulties faced by babies born to soon or too small. 

“The imaging and epigenetic data from our participants is available for use by the wider research community.”

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