A new King’s College London scanning study of 390 babies has shown distinct patterns between term and pre-term babies in the moment-to-moment activity and connectivity of brain networks.
Supported by Wellcome and the National institute of Health and Care Research (NIHR) Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre, this is the first study to analyse how the communication between brain areas changes moment-to-moment in the first few weeks of life.
Published in Nature Communications, the study also found that these dynamic patterns of brain connectivity in babies were linked to developmental measures of movement, language, cognition and social behaviour 18 months later.
Joint senior author, Dr Dafnis Batallé, Senior Lecturer in Neurodevelopmental Science at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London said:
“Although we know how influential brain connectivity is on development, we know little about the patterns of dynamic functional connectivity in early life, and how they link to the way our brains mature. By analysing brain scans from 390 babies, we have begun to identify different transient states of connectivity that could potentially provide insight into how the brain is developing at this age and what behaviours and functions these patterns are linked to as the baby grows older.”
There is increasing 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 neonatal brain connectivity and its fluctuations over time.
Researchers used state-of-the-art techniques to evaluate functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) data on 324 full term babies and 66 pre-term babies (born at less than 37 weeks gestation). They assessed how the connectivity changed moment-to-moment during the time the baby was in the scanner to provide a dynamic picture. Previous research with babies has always used a measure of connectivity averaged over time spent in the scanner.
Dr Lucas França, first author and Assistant Professor in Computer and Information Sciences at Northumbria University. said:
"These findings are a result of carefully adapting methodologies derived from the domains of computer science and physics, specifically employed to unveil the intricacies inherent to the human neonatal brain. When these methodologies are allied to advanced techniques to obtain unprecedented data like the one from the Developing Human Connectome Project, we have a unique opportunity to deepen our understanding of the largely unknown realm of brain dynamics in early life.”
The study used methods that tap into how the brain connectivity fluctuates: one method that considers connectivity patterns across the whole brain and one that considers patterns within different regions of the brain.
The study identified six different brain states: three of these were across the whole brain and three were constrained to regions of the brain (occipital, sensorimotor and frontal regions). By comparing term and pre-term babies the researchers showed that different patterns of connectivity are linked to pre-term birth, for example pre-term babies spent more time in frontal and occipital brain states than term babies. They also demonstrated that brain state dynamics at birth are linked to a range of developmental outcomes in early 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 continually changing in early life and how this provides a platform to support subsequent developmental milestones in childhood. The difference between term and pre-term babies suggests that time spent in or outside the womb shapes brain development. We now need to try and find out if it is possible to use these insights to identify and help those who need some additional support.”
The data was sourced from The Developing Human Connectome Project (dHCP), which is led by King’s College London and funded by the European Research Council. It is providing high resolution magnetic resonance brain images from unborn and newborn babies to scientists worldwide to support a large number of world-leading research projects into brain development and cerebral or mental health disorders.
Professor David Edwards, Principal Investigator of dHCP and Head of Department of Perinatal Imaging and Health, 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 programme funded by the European Research Council and led by King’s College London in collaboration with Imperial College London and the University of Oxford. The data are freely available to researchers who want to study human brain development.”
For more information and a copy of the paper under embargo, please contact:
Franca Davenport, Senior Communications and Engagement Manager (part-time), NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre, firstname.lastname@example.org Mobile: 07976 918968 Alex Booth, Senior Communications and Engagement Manager (Monday - Thursday), NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre, email@example.com ‘Neonatal brain dynamic functional connectivity: impact of preterm birth and association with early childhood neurodevelopment’ by Franca, L.G.S et al. is published in Nature Communications.
The study is under strict embargo until Thursday 8th February 2024 10:00 am GMT. After the embargo lifts the study will be available at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-023-44050-z
Notes to editors
The labels have been added to this press release as part of a project run by the Academy of Medical Sciences seeking to improve the communication of evidence. For more information, please see: http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/AMS-press-release-labelling-system-GUIDANCE.pdf
About King’s College London and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience
King’s College London is amongst the top 35 universities in the world and top 10 in Europe (THE World University Rankings 2023), and one of England’s oldest and most prestigious universities.
With an outstanding reputation for world-class teaching and cutting-edge research, King’s maintained its sixth position for ‘research power’ in the UK (2021 Research Excellence Framework).
King's has more than 33,000 students (including more than 12,800 postgraduates) from some 150 countries worldwide, and some 8,500 staff. The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s is a leading centre for mental health and neuroscience research in Europe. It produces more highly cited outputs (top 1% citations) on psychiatry and mental health than any other centre (SciVal 2021), and on this metric has risen from 16th (2014) to 4th (2021) in the world for highly cited neuroscience outputs. In the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF), 90% of research at the IoPPN was deemed ‘world leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’ (3* and 4*). World-leading research from the IoPPN has made, and continues to make, an impact on how we understand, prevent and treat mental illness, neurological conditions, and other conditions that affect the brain.
www.kcl.ac.uk/ioppn | Follow @KingsIoPPN on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
The National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR)
The mission of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) is to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. We do this by:
Funding high quality, timely research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care; Investing in world-class expertise, facilities and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services; Partnering with patients, service users, carers and communities, improving the relevance, quality and impact of our research; Attracting, training and supporting the best researchers to tackle complex health and social care challenges; Collaborating with other public funders, charities and industry to help shape a cohesive and globally competitive research system; Funding applied global health research and training to meet the needs of the poorest people in low and middle income countries. NIHR is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. Its work in low and middle income countries is principally funded through UK Aid from the UK government.
Wellcome supports science to solve the urgent health challenges facing everyone. We support discovery research into life, health and wellbeing, and we’re taking on three worldwide health challenges: mental health, infectious disease and climate and health.
The Developing Human Connectome Project is led by King’s College London in collaboration with Oxford University and Imperial College and funded by the European Research Council.
It is providing high resolution magnetic resonance brain images from unborn and newborn babies to scientists worldwide to support a large number of world-leading research projects into brain development and cerebral or mental health disorders. Further information is available on www.developingconnectome.org.
About Northumbria University
Northumbria University is a research-intensive university that unlocks potential for all, changing lives regionally, nationally and internationally. Named University of the Year 2022 in the Times Higher Education (THE) Awards. Find out more about us at www.northumbria.ac.uk