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Advancing MRI scans for foetal development - Nov. 27, 2013

Advancing MRI scans for foetal development - Nov. 27, 2013

Mapping the development of babies while they are still in the womb is the premise of a European project which aims to design techniques designed to pinpoint problems earlier, and develop appropriate therapies. 

The dHCP ('Developing Human Connectome Project') project aims to create a picture of how babies' brains develop and how they form connections - particularly during the third trimester. This is being made possible thanks to a synergy grant from the European Research Council (ERC) of EUR 3.2 million. 

The project has a team of engineers, mathematicians and scientists and is being led by Professor David Edwards from King's College London, alongside colleague Professor Joseph Hanjal, and together with Professor Daniel Rueckert from the Department of Computing at Imperial College London and Professor Steve Smith from the University of Oxford. Their aim is to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to track brain connectivity in foetuses and newborns, providing insights into neuropsychiatric conditions such as autism. 

This will also provide insights into conditions such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Professor David Edwards, Director of the Centre for the Developing Brain, who is leading the collaboration, said: 'This is about understanding how the human brain assembles itself. By the time a baby is born, the brain is well developed and key connections between nerves have already been made, so we are looking at babies in the womb. We want to map the nerve connections that form as the brain grows and develops.' 

Despite only starting this year, the project has already made headway with the opening of the Evelina Newborn Imaging Centre, which is part of the Centre for the Developing Brain, based at St Thomas' Hospital, London. This facility will also be where most of the subjects will be scanned over the duration of the project. A study has also been published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, which shows how structural brain connectivity changes with growth, and also in premature birth. 

Professor Rueckert says: 'Our role is to build a platform for the analysis of the huge amount of data, showing how the different parts of the brain interact. What we'll try to do is find patterns of connections in the brain as they occur and match these to clinical data, such as medical notes, on how the child develops.' 
'If you think back 20 years, ' Professor Rueckert adds, 'it wasn't possible to take detailed MRI scans of children while they were still in the womb or if they were born prematurely. The techniques have been developed so that children can be imaged in a safe environment, providing data to improve treatment and diagnosis.' 

During the five-year project, data will be analysed from 1,500 children, starting from around 23 weeks of pregnancy through to birth. Comparisons will also be made of children's abilities at around two years old. It is hoped this will provide further clues as to how children's brains develop and how regions of their brains connect. It will also show the conditions where brain connections are abnormal and how they might form in a child. 

This data will also form the basis of a shared online forum for other researchers to access, and help with their continued studies into brain activity.

Nov. 27, 2013