For the first time, Wayne State University researchers have shown brain connectivity in fetuses, a discovery that could lead to new ways to prevent and treat brain disorders such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.
Moriah Thomason, a developmental neuroscientist, collaborated with other WSU researchers and used magnetic resonance imaging to capture real-time images that showed communication signals between more than 40 regions of the brain of fetuses in utero.
The study is being published in Wednesday's issue of Science Translational Medicine, a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"This is a phenomenal advance for science," said Thomason, an assistant professor of Pediatrics at the WSU School of Medicine and principal investigator of the study. "We never, ever have been able to peer into the fetal brain and look at the development of functional networks. Scientific researchers will take this new method and apply it to a great number of questions, and that will help us all."
The results are the first from a MRI collaboration between WSU's medical school and the Perinatology Research Branch, a division of the National Institutes of Health based at WSU that focuses on problems in pregnancies. The PRB has been based at the university since 2002 and recently learned it will keep the government contract through 2023.
The findings come as the Obama administration is calling for scientists to map the human brain, similar to Human Genome Project. Though WSU doesn't have a direct tie to the brain project, being able to track fetal brain connectivity is directly related to the federal initiative, Thomason said.
Research has shown that brain disorders such as autism may begin in fetal life but there hasn't been a method for seeing and studying brain development at that stage.
But Thomason's study showed that the fetal brain can be studied while in the womb using MRI scans that do not threaten the health of the infant or mother, providing a mechanism for many researchers to study fetal brain connections as they are forming and possibly learn how a lack of connections can result in brain disorders.
"By understanding how a lack of (brain) connectivity occurs, the research community can begin to identify what things influence early brain development," Thomason said. "If we know what disrupts or impedes healthy brain development, then we have a better shot at finding a way to treat and possibly prevent it."
The research, which began in November, was funded partly by the NIH and WSU. It included 25 fetuses between 24 to 38 weeks of gestation.
The findings show that brain connections strengthened between the right and left side as fetuses developed and short-distance connections in the brain network are more strongly connected than long-range connections.
It is the first study of a larger project that seeks to define how functional brain networks form in fetuses and examine the environment of the developing child in utero, and factors in the mother's life. The project plans to track the fetuses once they become infants and throughout their life so researchers can compare their neurodevelopment to what was seen in the womb. The hope is to even study the children of these fetuses, if funding allows.
Heather Stern, 25, Waterford Township, heard about the project from one of her friends, who participated. Since Stern was also pregnant — she's will be at 32 weeks on Thursday — she volunteered to be a subject in the study.
"Hopefully it will help with different brain disorders," Stern said, "and help out babies and moms in the future."
By Kim Kozlowski
Source: The Detroit News - http://goo.gl/rNo5y