Researchers from Wayne State University and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the NIH reported the successful mapping of the functional connectivity (FC) networks of fetal brains. Using resting state functional MRI (fMRI) techniques, the team imaged 25 pregnant women during the second and third trimesters. With these techniques, researchers are for the first time able to observe the networks within the brain as they develop.
Several challenges had to be overcome in order to obtain the data, one of the important of which was fetal movement. Only data acquired in between movement could be used, the remaining 41% of the data was discarded. The researchers were able to map activity in 80 different regions of the brain and measure the levels of connectivity between the regions.
The team hopes that such imaging will develop into practical methods of studying the development of brain disorders, especially those that affect children like autism and ADHD.
From the study abstract in Science Translational Medicine:
Significant bilateral connectivity was evident in half of the 42 areas tested, and the strength of FC between homologous cortical brain regions increased with advancing gestational age. We also observed medial to lateral gradients in fetal functional brain connectivity. These findings improve understanding of human fetal central nervous system development and provide a basis for examining the role of insults during fetal life in the subsequent development of disorders in neural FC.
Study abstract in Science Translational Medicine: Cross-Hemispheric Functional Connectivity in the Human Fetal Brain