A new King’s College London scanning study of 390 infants showed distinct patterns in moment-to-moment activity and brain network connectivity between term and pre-term infants.
Supported by Wellcome and the National Institute of Health and Care Research (NIHR) Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre, this is the first study to analyze how communication between brain regions changes over time in the first few weeks of life.
Published in Nature Communications, the study also found that these dynamic patterns of brain connectivity in infants were linked to developmental measures of movement, language, cognition and social behavior 18 months later.
Joint senior author, Dr Daphnis Batale, Senior Lecturer in Neurodevelopmental Sciences at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IOPPN), King’s College London, said:
“Although we know how influential brain connectivity is in development, we know little about dynamic functional connectivity patterns in early life and how they link to our brain’s maturation. By analyzing brain scans of 390 children, we began to identify different transient states of connectivity. That can provide insight into how the brain is developing at this age and what kinds of behaviors and tasks these patterns are associated with as the child gets older.”
There is growing awareness that conditions such as ADHD, autism, and schizophrenia have their origins early in life, and that the development of these conditions may be linked to changes in neonatal brain connectivity and its fluctuations over time.
Researchers used state-of-the-art technology to evaluate functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data on 324 full-term infants and 66 pre-term infants (born at less than 37 weeks’ gestation). They assessed how connectivity changed moment by moment while the child was in the scanner to provide a dynamic picture. Previous research with children has always used a measure of average connectivity with time spent in the scanner.
These findings are the result of carefully adapting methods derived from the domains of computer science and physics, specifically employed to unravel the underlying complexities of the human neonatal brain. “When these methods are combined with advanced techniques to obtain never-before-seen data, such as the developing human connectivity project, we have a unique opportunity to deepen our understanding of a largely unknown area of brain dynamics early in life.”
Dr Lucas Franca, first author and Assistant Professor of Computer and Information Science at Northumbria University
The study used methods that tap how brain connectivity fluctuates: one that considers connectivity patterns across the entire brain and one that considers patterns in different brain regions.
The study identified six different brain conditions: three of which spanned the entire brain and three were limited to brain regions (occipital, sensorimotor, and frontal regions). Comparing term and pre-term babies, researchers have shown that different patterns of connectivity are associated with pre-term birth, for example pre-term babies spend more time in frontal and occupational brain states than term babies. They also show that dynamics of brain state at birth are associated with different developmental outcomes during childhood.
Joint senior author, Professor Grainne McAlonan, Interim Director of NIHR Maudsley BRC and Professor of Translational Neuroscience at IOPPN, King’s College London, said:
“This is a real step forward in the use of imaging techniques to investigate how brain activity is constantly changing in early life and how this provides a platform to support later developmental milestones during childhood. “Spending time in or out of the womb shapes brain development. We now need to try and figure out how to use these insights to identify and help those who need some extra help.”
The data was taken from The Developing Human Connectome Project (dHCP), led by King’s College London and funded by the European Research Council. It is providing scientists worldwide with high-resolution magnetic resonance brain images from preterm and newborn infants to support a large number of world-leading research projects in brain development and cerebral or mental health disorders.
Professor David Edwards, dHCP’s Principal Investigator and Head of the Department of Perinatal Imaging and Health at King’s College London, said: “This study shows the power of the large set of data acquired by the Developing Human Connectome Project, an open science program which funded “Led by the European Research Council and King’s College London in collaboration with Imperial College London and the University of Oxford. The data is freely available to researchers who want to study human brain development.”
Franca, LGS, etc. (2024). Dynamic functional connectivity of the neonatal brain in term and preterm infants and its relationship to early childhood neurodevelopment. Nature communication. doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-44050-z.