Using real-time images of brain connections developing in late-stage
foetuses, scientists say they've been able for the first time to compare the
order and strength of these connections.
The research, though very preliminary, might one day lead the way to more
effective therapies for brain disorders such as dyslexia,
attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, the researchers
Scientists from the US National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development and Wayne State University School of Medicine looked at 25 foetal
brains from a group of pregnant women between 24 and 38 weeks of gestation. The
researchers used an imaging technique called functional MRI (fMRI) to visualise
"communication" between various regions of the brain.
The scientists learned that connections between the right and left sides of
the brains got stronger as foetuses grew older. They said they also learned that
shorter distances between matching areas produced stronger signals than longer
spans between corresponding areas on the brain's outer edges.
"What we're seeing is a picture of emerging connectivity that the right and
left side are kind of building a bridge to each other," said study author Moriah
Thomason, an assistant professor of paediatrics at Wayne State, in Detroit.
"It's evidence for the fact that already in foetal life, this anatomy is being
constructed in a way that we would expect. But for the first time, we can show
the development of these networks."
Better understanding of conditions
While scientists had previously used fMRI scans on foetuses, this new
research is the first to compare a group of foetuses and identify features of
development, Thomason said. Nearly 90% of the pregnant mothers participating in
the study were black, while the rest were white or multiracial. They later
delivered 17 boys and eight girls.
MRI scans don't emit radiation, thus minimising risk to the foetuses during
the procedure. The technique showed significant connections between half of the
dozens of brain areas tested.
The findings might provide groundwork for understanding how and when brain
development may go awry during gestation, Thomason said. This may possibly lead
to better understanding of conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia and autism, which
are thought to arise from disrupted brain networks, she said.
"If we know what gets in the way of those [normal] processes, we have a
better shot at treating those disorders," Thomason said. "It's not just about
early identification. An additional valuable outcome is, when you can see what
normal looks like and see what disruption looks like, you have the opportunity
to pick out patterns that tell you about the origin of that disease," she
"The brain can be a tattletale to what is going on in those diseases,"
Thomason added, "and that can help us develop novel treatments."
The US National Library of Medicine has more on foetal