Explaining bursts of activity in brains of preterm babies

September 12, 2017, University College London
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The source of spontaneous, high-amplitude bursts of activity seen in the brains of preterm babies, which are vital for healthy development, has been identified by a team led by researchers at UCL and King's College London.

In a new study published in eLife and funded by the National Institute for Health Research and the Medical Research Council, the researchers found that a specific region called the insula plays a major role in the generation of the spontaneous neuronal bursts.

The researchers say the spontaneous brain activity is essential to strengthen brain connections which will serve as 'scaffolding' that will then develop further with life experience. Other studies have found that infants whose brains don't display this activity are more likely to develop cerebral palsy or have poor cognitive skills later in life.

"While we don't yet know what causes these neuronal bursts, we know that in healthy babies, they are present preterm and disappear at full term. It's a bad sign if they are absent in preterm or present still after full term," said one of the study's lead authors, Dr Lorenzo Fabrizi (UCL Biosciences). "The brain of a is not merely a downsized version of that of an adult, but is uniquely designed to prepare itself for the external world."

For the study, the team identified the source of the most common type of bursts, called delta brush events, in 10 healthy preterm infants aged 32-36 postmenstrual weeks using a simultaneous combination of two techniques: an electroencephalogram (EEG) to identify the signal and imaging (fMRI) to map its location.

The EEG does not give precise spatial information, so the researchers matched the timings of the neuronal activity with fMRI readings, which provide better spatial data by measuring blood flow throughout the brain.

The infants wore custom-made caps fitted with electrodes to record the EEG and were then put inside the MRI scanner when asleep. As EEG and fMRI had not been used simultaneously on babies before, it was a challenging experiment to set up as the authors had to be very careful to ensure the babies did not experience any discomfort during the tests.

The researchers found that the bursts came from the insula, which is one of the most densely connected hubs in the developing cortex. The study findings correspond with previous evidence that the insula enters a crucial phase of development during the late-term period studied.

As a major source of the transient bursting events that are critical for brain maturation, the researchers say the insula's preterm activity warrants further scientific investigation in both humans and animal models.

"This may offer new and exciting opportunities for monitoring how brain develops in preterm and a new understanding of how early irregularities can ultimately lead to disability. Most research in focuses on structures instead of functions, so we're hopeful that our methods can be used further to enhance our understanding of brain function before birth," said the study's first author, Dr Tomoki Arichi (King's College London).

Explore further: Brain mapping study to improve outcomes for preterm infants

More information: Tomoki Arichi et al, Localization of spontaneous bursting neuronal activity in the preterm human brain with simultaneous EEG-fMRI, eLife (2017). DOI: 10.7554/eLife.27814

Related Stories

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.

A prescription for touch: Early experiences shape preterm babies' brains

March 16, 2017
Newborn babies experience the world through touch. Now, researchers who have measured the brain responses of 125 infants—including babies who were born prematurely and others who went full-term—show that a baby's earliest ...

Premature birth alters brain connections

May 4, 2015
Premature birth can alter the connectivity between key areas of the brain, according to a new study led by King's College London. The findings should help researchers to better understand why premature birth is linked to ...

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.

Babies distinguish pain from touch at 35-37 weeks

September 8, 2011
Babies can distinguish painful stimuli as different from general touch from around 35-37 weeks gestation – just before an infant would normally be born – according to new research.

A mother's voice may help stabilize preterm infants

April 5, 2017
A recent review of published research indicates that hearing their mother's voice can benefit the health of preterm infants.

Recommended for you

Diagnosing and treating disorders of early sex development

June 19, 2018
Diagnosing, advising on and treating disorders of early sex development represent a huge medical challenge, both for those affected and for treating physicians. In contrast to the earlier view, DSD (Difference of Sex Development) ...

Use of alternative medicines has doubled among kids, especially teens

June 18, 2018
A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics shows that since 2003, the use of alternative medicines, such as herbal products and nutraceuticals, among children has doubled. The University of Illinois at Chicago researchers who ...

Virtual reality headsets significantly reduce children's fear of needles

June 18, 2018
The scenario is all too familiar for the majority of parents. The crying, the screaming and the tantrums as they try to coax their children into the doctor's office for routine immunizations. After all, who can't relate to ...

Both quantity and quality of sleep affect cardiovascular risk factors in adolescents

June 15, 2018
A study from a research team led by a MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) physician finds that both the quantity and quality of sleep—the amount of time spent sleeping and the percentage of sleep that is undisturbed—in ...

Ingesting honey after swallowing button battery reduces injury and improves outcomes

June 11, 2018
A team of ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists has demonstrated that eating honey after swallowing a button battery has the potential to reduce serious injuries in small children. Based on findings in laboratory animals, ...

Bifidobacteria supplement colonizes gut of breastfed infants

June 10, 2018
Supplementing breastfed infants with activated Bifidobacterium infantis (B. infantis) bacteria had a positive impact on babies' gut microbes for up to a year, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of ...

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.