These mind-blowing images are the first batch of scans from a project monitoring the brains of babies from fetus to birth, providing scientists with ground-breaking insights into how the billions of neurons in our brain become wired up during pregnancy. It could even help our understanding of autism and cerebral palsy.
The research by King’s College London, Imperial College London, and the University of Oxford is part of the Developing Human Connectome Project (dHCP). Using a €15 million ($16.3 million) grant from the EU's European Research Council, they have developed new MRI techniques that allow scientists to create high-resolution images of the brains of fetuses while they are still in the womb.
“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," lead principal investigator Professor David Edwards from King’s College London said in a statement.
Over the coming years, they will continue to use this new method to produce hundreds of thousands of these images, building up a never-before-seen glimpse into the developing human brain. The end goal is to create a comprehensive map showing the billions of neurons that make our the human mind, as well as how they come together during gestation. The scientists on the project will also share all of this information and data online for scientists around the world to freely use in their own research.
Scanning the brains of babies is no small feat. Along with the brain being smaller than a baseball, the researchers have to keep the baby asleep while in the MRI machine. On top of that, the team needed to develop new computer programs to analyze and process the super high-quality images. "We have been developing novel approaches that help researchers by automatically analyzing the rich and comprehensive MR images that are collected as part of dHCP," Professor Daniel Rueckert, an expert in computational techniques for the analysis of biomedical images, added.
So far they’ve used their methods on just 40 newborn babies. However, the scientists are looking for more newborn babies pregnant mothers to scan. The method totally safe, with no radiation or X-rays involved, just powerful magnetic fields, radio waves, and electric field gradients.
"Having lots of data will mean we can study what is normal and abnormal in terms of brain development," Professor Edwards told BBC News. "We can start to answer important questions, like what happens to the brain when babies are born prematurely or how does the brain develop differently in children with autism."