Novel study maps infant brain growth in first three months of life using MRI technology

August 11, 2014
Credit: Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and the University of Hawaii demonstrates a new approach to measuring early brain development of infants, resulting in more accurate whole brain growth charts and providing the first estimates for growth trajectories of subcortical areas during the first three months after birth. Assessing the size, asymmetry and rate of growth of different brain regions could be key in detecting and treating the earliest signs of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism or perinatal brain injury.

The study will be published in JAMA Neurology on August 11.

For the first time, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the newborn to calculate the volume of multiple brain regions and to map out regional growth trajectories during the infant's first 90 days of life. The study followed the brain growth of full term and premature babies with no neurological or major health issues.

"A better understanding of when and how arise in the postnatal period may help assist in therapeutic development, while being able to quantify related changes in structure size would likely facilitate monitoring response to therapeutic intervention. Early intervention during a period of high neuroplasticity could mitigate the severity of the disorders in later years," said Dominic Holland, PhD, first author of the study and researcher in the Department of Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

For more than two centuries, clinicians have tracked by measuring the outside of the infant's head with a measuring tape. The results are then plotted on a percentile chart to indicate if normal growth patterns exist. While the measurement is helpful for observing growth, it does not reveal if the individual structures within the brain are developing normally.

On average, researchers found the newborn brain grows one percent each day immediately following birth but slows to 0.4 percent per day by three months. In general for both sexes, the cerebellum, which is involved in motor control, grew at the highest rate, more than doubling volume in 90 days. The hippocampus grew at the slowest rate, increasing in volume by only 47 percent in 90 days, suggesting that the development of episodic memory is not as important at this stage of life.

"We found that being born a week premature, for example, resulted in a brain four to five percent smaller than expected for a full term baby. The brains of actually grow faster than those of term-born babies, but that's because they're effectively younger – and younger means faster growth," said Holland. "At 90 days post-delivery, however, premature brains were still two percent smaller. The brain's rapid growth rates near birth suggest that inducing early labor, if not clinically warranted, may have a negative effect on the infant's neurodevelopment."

The study also found that many asymmetries in the brain are already established in the early postnatal period, including the right hippocampus being larger than the left, which historically, has been suggested to occur in the early adolescent years. Cerebral asymmetry is associated with functions such as dexterity and language abilities.

Next steps involve continuing to make advances in the application of different MRI modalities to examine the newborn brain. MRI provides high quality images of different types of tissue and does not involve radiation, like computed tomography (CT). Future research will investigate how brain structure sizes at birth and subsequent growth rates are altered as a result of alcohol and drug consumption during pregnancy.

"Our findings give us a deeper understanding of the relationship between brain structure and function when both are developing rapidly during the most dynamic postnatal growth phase for the human brain," said Holland.

Explore further: MRI shows brain abnormalities in late preterm infants

Related Stories

MRI shows brain abnormalities in late preterm infants

June 10, 2014
Babies born 32 to 36 weeks into gestation may have smaller brains and other brain abnormalities that could lead to long-term developmental problems, according to a new study published online in the journal Radiology.

Does a bigger brain make for a smarter child in babies born prematurely?

October 12, 2011
New research suggests the growth rate of the brain's cerebral cortex in babies born prematurely may predict how well they are able to think, speak, plan and pay attention later in childhood. The research is published in the ...

Brain mapping study to improve outcomes for preterm infants

October 22, 2013
A University of Queensland study into how premature babies' brains develop will lead to the earlier diagnosis of brain impairment in preterm children.

Preterm children's brains can catch up years later

July 29, 2014
There's some good news for parents of preterm babies – latest research from the University of Adelaide shows that by the time they become teenagers, the brains of many preterm children can perform almost as well as those ...

Bigger babies have bigger brains as teens: study

November 19, 2012
(HealthDay)—Newborns who weigh around 9 pounds or more at birth tend to have bigger brains as teens than those who weigh less at birth, a new study finds.

Even mild traumatic brain injury may cause brain damage

July 16, 2014
Even mild traumatic brain injury may cause brain damage and thinking and memory problems, according to a study published in the July 16, 2014, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Recommended for you

Zebrafish study reveals clues to healing spinal cord injuries

July 25, 2017
Fresh insights into how zebrafish repair their nerve connections could hold clues to new therapies for people with spinal cord injuries.

Brain stimulation may improve cognitive performance in people with schizophrenia

July 24, 2017
Brain stimulation could be used to treat cognitive deficits frequently associated with schizophrenia, according to a new study from King's College London.

New map may lead to drug development for complex brain disorders, researcher says

July 24, 2017
Just as parents are not the root of all their children's problems, a single gene mutation can't be blamed for complex brain disorders like autism, according to a Keck School of Medicine of USC neuroscientist.

Bird songs provide insight into how developing brain forms memories

July 24, 2017
Researchers at the University of Chicago have demonstrated, for the first time, that a key protein complex in the brain is linked to the ability of young animals to learn behavioral patterns from adults.

Research identifies new brain death pathway in Alzheimer's disease

July 24, 2017
Alzheimer's disease tragically ravages the brains, memories and ultimately, personalities of its victims. Now affecting 5 million Americans, Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and a cure ...

Illuminating neural pathways in the living brain

July 24, 2017
Using light alone, scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried are now able to reveal pairs or chains of functionally connected neurons under the microscope. The new optogenetic method, named Optobow, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.