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Researcher Yashwanth Katkuri views a fetus while performing an MRI study of a pregnant woman at the MR Research Facility at Wayne State University in Detroit. 

Brain connectivity networks form in fetus brains, study shows.

by Mary Posani
Feb 21, 2013

Researchers are now able to examine fetal brains and visually track brain communication networks developments prior to birth with a much less invasive method.

Researchers at Wayne State University and Perinatology Research Branch of National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Detroit found that using functional MRI, a process that measures oxygen and blood flow in the brain, snapshots during pregnancy can visually show brain connection networks in the fetus and their development.

The scans show that brain connectivity develops in utero instead of developing post-birth. Also, the scans indicate that there was improved maturation in brain connectivity that comes with age.  The study was published in Science Translational Medicine on Wednesday.

Roberto Romero, physician and chief of staff from Perinatology Research Branch, said common brain disorders such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are thought to be from abnormalities in brain network connectivity.  Researchers found from studying fetuses, brain networks form in utero and not post-birth and can track how the networks develop in the womb.

“We decided to study fetuses to determine when the brain networks are established, how they develop during fetal life and investigate the effect of intrauterine infection and problems with oxygen delivery in brain networks,” Romero said. “We report bilateral fetal brain functional connectivity and regional- and age-related variation with advancing gestational age.”

Researchers used fMRI scans to analyze the signal patterns of communication in brain development in the womb. They scanned more than 40 different regions of fetal brains that are 24 to 38 weeks old on 29 pregnant women.

Most research of the brain involves anatomical examinations through autopsies. Prior to using fMRI scans, researchers could evaluate brain connectivity postmortem. Now, researchers can analyze the brain’s development safely through this less invasive technique.

“We now have a proven way to study these connections as they are forming and possibly learn how lack of connection in the brain results in disorders,” said Moriah Thomason, pediatrics professor at Wayne State University School of Medicine.

She said that this research cannot tell when or if a child will develop a disorder such as autism, but can track formation patterns and see if anything abnormal occurs.

“There is a lot of evidence to show that autism may begin in fetal life,” Thomason said. “But actually seeing and studying brain development in that stage in the womb is very challenging.”

Romero added that technology to examine the fetal brain prior to 24 weeks does not exist yet. In the future, Romero said researchers now have a reliable method and can map out this connectivity development.

Leeber Cohen, an associate professor in obstetrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said he has not read the final research, but believes the study advances literature and research that is already known. He also thinks that it can have many implications to find child abnormalities prior to birth.

“I think the big question is when you have certain high-risk pregnancies, you ask how are they developing?” Cohen said. “Can you identify things in the fetus? I think it is all important and all an exciting thing.”

Thomason said the team will continue researching the subjects and scanning the brains during the child infancies in order to further understand brain connectivity networks.

“By understanding when and how lack of connectivity occurs, the research community can then identify what influences early brain development,” Thomason said. “If we know what interrupts or impedes healthy brain development, then we have a better shot to treat and possibly prevent disorders."