University of Washington researchers developed a new way to monitor and image the brain activity of individual babies still in the womb. Traditionally, fMRI imaging can sometimes be slightly distorted as the fetus moves around, but a new method helps correct for motion.

This new technique, documented in the journal Human Brain Mapping, allows researchers to map out a four-dimensional reconstruction of brain activity as the fetus moves around, allowing them to document in-depth details about how the brain develops, how it is impacted by external stimuli, and numerous other factors, including:

  • Whether there are differences in brain development in premature vs. full-term babies
  • What the effects of alcohol, stress and drugs are on a pregnancy
  • If there are any neurodevelopmental differences in babies who are later diagnosed with disorders like autism

Furthermore, the method is applicable not only to the brain, but also to the placenta – it allows researchers to look at how placental development impacts a baby’s brain development.

According to Colin Studholme, Ph.D., a professor of both Pediatrics and Bioengineering at the University of Washington and senior author of the paper, “What this is leading to is not just collecting data from individual babies but also understanding and building a four-dimensional map of brain activity and how it should emerge in a normal baby.”

Prior to this development, fMRI imaging on certain subjects (such as fetuses and young children) was somewhat difficult, as subjects that did not stay still for long could pose some difficulty for clear imaging. According to Vinay Pai, director of the Division of Health Informatics Technologies at NIBIB  “Techniques that minimize the effect of motion resolve a lot of problems,” says Pai. “In fetal imaging, you don’t have too many options.”


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