Researchers Map Fetal Brain Signals For First Time Ever

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Feb 21, 2013   |   1:42PM   |   Detroit, MI

Researchers at Wayne State University in Michigan are mapping, for the first time ever, fetal brain signals.

Science has proven that unborn babies show brainwaves starting at just several weeks into pregnancy and the scientists say the mapping project could lead to methods of helping prevent and treat brain disorders such as autism or dyslexia.

From the Detroit News article:

Moriah Thomason, a developmental neuroscientist, collaborated with other WSU researchers and used magnetic resonance imaging to capture real-time images that showed communication signals between more than 40 regions of the brain of fetuses in utero.

The study was published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“We never, ever have been able to peer into the fetal brain and look at the development of functional networks,” said Thomason, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the WSU School of Medicine and principal investigator of the study.

“Scientific researchers will take this new method and apply it to a great number of questions, and that will help us all.”

The results are the first from an MRI collaboration between WSU’s School of Medicine and the Perinatology Research Branch, a division of the National Institutes of Health based at WSU that focuses on problems in pregnancies. The research branch has been based at the university since 2002 and recently learned it will keep the government contract through 2023.

Brain disorders begin in the womb, but scientists have never had a method of studying brain development at that stage. However, those involved are demonstrating that the brain of an unborn baby can be studied while in the womb using MRI scans that are not harmful for either mother or child.

The babies they are studying are between 24 and 38 weeks of pregnancy.

“By understanding how a lack of (brain) connectivity occurs, the research community can begin to identify what things influence early brain development,” Thomason said.

“If we know what disrupts or impedes healthy brain development, then we have a better shot at finding a way to treat and possibly prevent it.”

The findings show brain connections strengthened between the right and left sides as fetuses developed, and short-distance connections in the brain network are more strongly connected than long-range connections.



It is the first study of a larger project that seeks to define how functional brain networks form in fetuses and examine the environment of the developing child in utero, and factors in the mother’s life.

The project plans to track the fetuses when they become infants and throughout their lives so researchers can compare their neurodevelopment with what was seen in the womb.

The hope is to study the children of the fetuses, if funding allows.