3-D mapping babies’ brains

Measuring the third-trimester growth and folding patterns of a baby’s brain.

A team of scientists at Washington University in St. Louis has developed a new way to track folding patterns in the brains of premature babies. It's hoped this new process could someday be used for diagnosing a host of diseases, including autism and schizophrenia. (Image: Bayly Lab)
A team of scientists at Washington University in St. Louis has developed a new way to track folding patterns in the brains of premature babies. It's hoped this new process could someday be used for diagnosing a host of diseases, including autism and schizophrenia. (Image: Bayly Lab)

Babies brain grows rapidly in utero. Their cerebral cortex drastically expands surface area. Many studies have suggested that this rapid and essential growth is an individualized process, with details varying infant to infant.

Now, a research team at in Washington University in St. Louis demonstrated a 3D method that precisely tracks third-trimester growth and folding patterns of a baby’s brain. According to scientists, this could lead to new diagnostic tools and also help to sound an early alarm on developmental disorders in premature infants that could affect them later in life.

Philip Bayly, the Lilyan & E. Lisle Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the School of Engineering & Applied Science said, “One of the things that are really interesting about people’s brains is that they are so different, yet so similar. We all have the same components, but our brain folds are like fingerprints: Everyone has a different pattern. Understanding the mechanical process of folding — when it occurs — might be a way to detect problems for brain development down the road.”

Scientists tracked magnetic resonance 3-D brain images from 30 pre-term infants. The babies were scanned two to four times each during the period of rapid brain expansion, which typically happens at 28 to 30 weeks. For this, they used a new computer algorithm through which they acquired precise point-to-point correspondence between younger and older cortical reconstructions of the same infant.

From each pair of surfaces, the team calculated precise maps of cortical expansion. Then, using a minimum energy approach to compare brain surfaces at different times, researchers picked up on subtle differences in the babies’ brain folding patterns.

“The minimum energy approach is the one that’s most likely from a physical standpoint,” Bayly said. “When we obtain surfaces from MR images, we don’t know which points on the older surface correspond with which points on the younger surface. We reasoned, that since nature is efficient, the most likely correspondence is the one that produces the best match between surface landmarks, while at the same time, minimizing how much the brain would have to distort while it is growing.

GIPHY image of brain folding, developed from an animation provided by the Bayly Lab.
GIPHY image of brain folding, developed from an animation provided by the Bayly Lab.

“When you use this minimum energy approach, you get rid of a lot of noise in the analysis, and what emerged were these subtle patterns of growth that were previously hidden in the data. Not only do we have a better picture of these developmental processes in general, but doctors should hopefully be able to assess individual patients, take a look at their pattern of brain development, and figure out how it’s tracking.”

It’s a measurement tool that could prove invaluable in places such as neonatal intensive care units, where preemies face a variety of challenges. Understanding an individual’s precise pattern of brain development also could assist physicians trying to make a diagnosis later in a patient’s life.

“You do also find folding abnormalities in populations that have cognitive issues later in life, including autism and schizophrenia,” Bayly said. “It’s possible if medical researchers understand better the folding process and what goes on wrong or differently, then they can understand a little bit more about what causes these problems.”

The findings, published online March 5 in PNAS, could help to sound an early alarm on developmental disorders in premature infants that could affect them later in life.