Tracking the unborn brain into childhood

A brain scanning technology called MEG is being used to track the function of unborn babies’ brains as they grow inside the womb until after they’ve been born.

The full name for MEG is magnetoencephalography and it works by reading the magnetic fields created by the electrical signalling in the brain.

One of the advantages is that it can be used at various angles, doesn’t require the person to be in a cramped space, and is less sensitive to movement, so is ideally suited to scanning babies.

This includes unborn babies and with a bit of modification, as illustrated in the picture, researchers can pick up signals from the fetal brain in response to flashes or light or sounds.

We discussed the use of fMRI to scan the fetal brain previously, but this is a remarkable study that scanned the brains of babies inside the womb, every two weeks from week 27 until delivery, and then once after they were born.

Clearly, unborn babies are not the best at doing tasks set by experimenters, but there are various tests that just require the individual to experience changes in what’s presented to them.

One is called the auditory oddball task, where a series of tones are played that can either be similar (‘beep beep beep’) or can have include an ‘oddball’ (‘beep beep boop’). The brain is very good at picking out differences and the oddball is known to reliably trigger brain signals related to detecting changes.

This was the exact task used with the babies and the researchers looked to see if they could pick out a brain reaction to the ‘oddball’.

They found that they could detect this response 83% of the time in unborn babies, and that the reaction to the ‘oddball’ increased in speed throughout pregnancy. The newly born babies showed the response every time without fail.

This is an impressive finding as it shows how the brain development of the unborn child can be tracked over time with a brain scanner.

In a recent review article that discusses the development of this technology, the same group of researchers suggest that these and similar techniques could help track how different conditions in the mother affect the developing brain and even how the brain begins to develop its understanding of speech sounds before birth.

Link to PubMed entry for MEG study of developing fetus.
Link to PubMed entry for review article on fetal MEG.

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