We study the human brain for many reasons. It teaches us about a lot about conditions and diseases, but only after the fact. When we study the brain, it is usually postmortem and then we only learn about things that have already happened.
With a new method of studying babies brain development while they are still in the womb could drastically change what we know about, and how we deal with, future disorders after birth.
Studying Brain Folds En Utero
In the third trimester, a baby’s brain develops quite rapidly. The cerebral cortex grows and begins to fold, which is a very important process for a child’s development. Although in some children the process can vary, it is still considered on of the most vital periods of time en utero. Studying this process using 3D imagery can help researchers better understand how it works and what could come after.
“One of the things that’s really interesting about people’s brains is that they are so different, yet so similar,” says Philip Bayly, professor of mechanical engineering at the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis. “We all have the same components, but our brain folds are like fingerprints: Everyone has a different pattern. Understanding the mechanical process of folding—when it occurs—might be a way to detect problems for brain development down the road.”
Using magnetic resonance 3D brain images from 30 preterm infants, a group of researchers – including Bayly, engineering doctoral student Kara Garcia, and associate professor of neurology Christopher Smyser – began studying the window of rapid brain growth. Each baby was scanned 2-4 rimes per week during this period, which usually takes place between weeks 28 and 38 during gestation.
Using a specific algorithm, the team obtained accurate point-to-point correspondence between younger and older cortical reconstructions of the same baby. They were also able to map out the cortical expansion of each child more accurately. Researchers then picked up on the subtle, yet important, differences in each brain’s folding patterns using a minimum energy approach.
Bayly explains the process: “The minimum energy approach is the one that’s most likely from a physical standpoint. When we obtain surfaces from MR images, we don’t know which points on the older surface correspond with which points on the younger surface. We reasoned, that since nature is efficient, the most likely correspondence is the one that produces the best match between surface landmarks, while at the same time, minimizing how much the brain would have to distort while it is growing.”
“When you use this minimum energy approach, you get rid of a lot of noise in the analysis, and what emerged were these subtle patterns of growth that were previously hidden in the data. Not only do we have a better picture of these developmental processes in general, but doctors should hopefully be able to assess individual patients, take a look at their pattern of brain development, and figure out how it’s tracking.”
Using The Findings
Premature babies face a multitude of challenges after birth. This measurement tool could be used in places like neonatal ICUs to help identify various difficulties or disorders before they arise, as well as treat them once they do. Having a better understanding of a patient’s brain fold pattern at birth could also prove to be a vital tool later in life to diagnose and treat other issues.
“You do also find folding abnormalities in populations that have cognitive issues later in life, including autism and schizophrenia,” says Bayly. “It’s possible, if medical researchers understand better the folding process and what goes on wrong or differently, then they can understand a little bit more about what causes these problems.”