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Brain Development in the Womb is Soon to be Understood

Update Date: Apr 10, 2013 02:23 PM EDT

Scientists in the UK plan to map developing nerve connections in babies' brains while still in the womb.

For the first time ever, it is possible to embark on this sex-year project which scientists hope will determine how a baby thinks or sees the world and even help scientists understand the development of conditions such as autism.

By the time a baby take its first breath many of the key pathways between nerves have already developed. However, how this neural network is formed before the baby is born is largely unknown.

Researchers from UK hospitals and universities are teaming up to understand in detail the complex wiring of how the human brain grows. The plan to chart the journeys of bundles of nerves during the final three months of pregnancy, in hopes to help doctors understand more about how they can help in situations where the process goes wrong.

"There is a distressing number of children in our society who grow up with problems because of things that happen to them around the time of birth or just before birth," says leading researcher Prof David Edwards, director of the Centre for the Developing Brain.

"It is very important to be able to scan babies before they are born, because we can capture a period when an awful lot is changing inside the brain, and it is a time when a great many of the things that might be going wrong do seem to be going wrong."

Researchers plan to study 1,500 babies to understand the many aspects of their neurological development. By examining babies in the womb and those who are born prematurely and at full term, scientists hope to understand the baselines of normal development in order to investigate problems that may affect babies around birth, according to BBC News

The study is known as the Developing Human Connectome Project. Researchers plan to use advanced MRI scanning techniques to pinpoint details of the growing brain which have been difficult to capture in the past because of fetuses constant movement in the amniotic sac.

Using three-dimensional pictures, researchers at the Centre for the Developing Brain have found ways to counter the effects of the fetuses' movements.

The MRI machine will be placed in the neonatal intensive care unit at Evelina Children's Hospital in London. This is one of the few centers in the world to have a scanner in such close proximity to the babies who often need it most, Prof Edwards says.

This means the same scanning system can be used to find out more about the brains of the sickest and smallest newborn babies, he says.

"We are trying to look at brain connectivity in two ways: firstly, from a structural perspective, to find out which parts of the brain are wired to other parts. And secondly we are looking at functional connectivity - how strongly two brain regions are linked across time and activity," says researcher Daniel Rueckert, professor of visual information processing at Imperial College London.

"It would obviously be a very good thing to know more about the circuits in the developing human brain. Much of what we know hasn't changed in a hundred years and has come from dissection studies.

"But we need to keep in mind the imaging techniques we have are indirect - we can't open up a human brain and look at the connections while someone is alive so we rely on these non-invasive methods. But there is a big gap between the real circuits in the brain and what images can show us."

Prof Rueckert says this map will provide a "macro-level" view of the developing brain and not be the "final answer".

But he references an earlier study of the adult equivalent with optimism, the Human Connectome Project, which was based in the U.S: "There is so much evidence already from the adult project that there are significant changes in the brain that can be mapped with the technology we have now."

"It will be incredibly useful to be able to do this with the still growing and developing brain - perhaps giving us more time to intervene when things go wrong."

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