Stunning images show baby brain development

An image showing a developing brain from The Developing Human Connectome Project.
An image showing a developing brain from The Developing Human Connectome Project. Photo: The Developing Human Connectome Project

It's the developing brain as we've never seen it before. UK researchers from the Developing Human Connectome Project have released a beautiful set of MRI scan images that show a baby's brain growth.

The project, which is also being carried out on mature adults, aims to map every stage of foetal brain growth in order to better understand what healthy brain development looks like, in addition to learning more about changes that cause autism and cerebral palsy.

It's what the BBC is aptly calling the "mother of all wiring diagrams", a highly ambitious and complex task to map how connections in the brain are made and in what order. The team, made up of researchers from King's College London, Imperial College London and the University of Oxford, hopes to gather data from the babies as they move through life to gain insight on whether the growth patterns contribute to particular life factors later on. 

Photo: Developing Human Connectome Project 

The scans were performed on 40 sleeping babies in the days after birth (which was, no doubt, challenging to ask of new parents!). 

Professor David Edwards says, "It's perfectly safe. There's no radiation or X-rays involved. But we are incredibly grateful to the families who have taken part in this work. It's contributing hugely to science."

In the next few years, the brains of a thousand more newborns will be imaged in addition to 500 babies who will be scanned inside the womb. The latter is particularly tricky to scan because there are two moving humans to capture. The hundreds of thousands of images the project expects to produce will provide the most accurate data to date on how brain pathways form and when early brain activity begins.

"Having lots of data will mean we can study what is normal and abnormal in terms of brain development," says Professor Edwards.

"We can start to answer important questions, like what happens to the brain when babies are born prematurely or how does the brain develop differently in children with autism."

It's an immense project; a baby's brain has trillions of neurons, synapses and pathways, with the connections made between them just as numerous and complex.

The end result will combine information from a number of sources including scans, behaviour and genetics, to create a detailed picture of brain development and life outcomes.

Photo: Developing Human Connectome Project