New brain imaging techniques to map unborn babies' brains | Action Medical Research

New brain imaging techniques to map unborn babies' brains

24 November 2010

 A team of world expert researchers from London – funded by children’s health charity Action Medical Research with support from WellChild, the national charity for sick children – has just started an innovative project to develop a groundbreaking new way of taking MRI scans during pregnancy.

In theory, MRI scans have the potential to identify brain damage in unborn babies, but movement of the baby during the scanning procedure seriously reduces image quality. These researchers are developing a way to overcome the problems caused by the babies’ movement, to provide superior quality images and improve diagnosis.
If successful, the research would make doctors better equipped to diagnose brain injuries and abnormalities in unborn babies. The research is being carried out by a specialist team of experts at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Clinical Sciences Centre in London, Hammersmith Hospital and Imperial College London, after receiving funding of £149,114 from Action Medical Research, including a £50,000 contribution from WellChild. 
Professor Mary Rutherford, who is leading the research, has been working in this field for 20 years, helping some of our most premature and vulnerable newborn babies. She said the new scans could facilitate diagnosis of some brain injuries, possibly within just hours of them developing.
She said: “The research team has recently developed a radical new way of using MRI to produce 3-dimensional images of babies in the womb, even if the baby is moving around. Funded by an earlier grant from Action Medical Research, the breakthrough technique provides previously unobtainable measures of the sizes of different parts of the brain.
“Now, we are applying the new technique to a more sophisticated type of MRI scan, called diffusion tensor imaging, so that it too can be used during pregnancy. We believe diffusion tensor imaging will have the power to identify injuries and abnormalities in unborn babies’ brains. It may also show how different areas of the brain are connected to each other, by revealing pathways that nerve fibres follow within the brain,” she added. 
The researchers are using diffusion tensor imaging to follow the progress of around 30 unborn babies who are at high risk of suffering brain damage. Scans are taking place twice during pregnancy and are being repeated after birth. The babies’ development is then being followed until two years of age.
The researchers are also scanning around 20 healthy unborn babies and comparing the results with scans of premature babies, so they can assess how premature birth affects the brain’s development.
The research group works within a multidisciplinary imaging unit led by Professor Jo Hajnal, which has developed state-of-the-art techniques for acquiring and interpreting MRI scans. They help care for newborns and have pioneered therapeutic interventions for babies with brain injuries.
They also have close links with a specialist unit that provides longer term follow up of children with brain injuries. As an extended team, the researchers have published extensively on all aspects of brain development in babies and on brain imaging.
Dr Yolande Harley, Deputy Director of Research for Action Medical Research, said: “This is a really exciting project as the researchers hope the revolutionary new scans they aim to develop will benefit pregnant women whose babies are at risk of developing brain problems. The information obtained could be invaluable in the design of new treatments for brain damage, treatments that could dramatically transform the whole of a baby’s life for the better,” she said.

Notes to editors:

For further information please contact:

Claudine Powell, Communications Manager
Tel: 01403 327478
Action Medical Research is the leading UK-wide medical research charity dedicated to helping babies and children. We know that medical research can save and change children’s lives. For nearly 60 years we have been instrumental in significant medical breakthroughs, including the development of the UK polio vaccine and ultrasound scanning in pregnancy. Today, we continue to find and fund the very best medical research to help stop the suffering of babies and children caused by disease and disability. We want to make a difference in:
  • tackling premature birth and treating sick and vulnerable babies 
  • helping children affected by disability, disabling conditions and infections 
  • targeting rare diseases that together severely affect many forgotten children.
WellChild is the national charity for sick children and is committed to helping children and their families throughout the UK as they deal with the consequences of serious illness and complex conditions. WellChild focuses on three key areas:
  • WellChild Care: WellChild Children’s Nurses work with sick children and their families in towns and cities across the country. 
  • WellChild Support: The practical help provided by the WellChild Helping Hands scheme enlists the support of volunteers from companies and organisations for individual home development projects. 
  • WellChild Research: WellChild has invested more than £20 million in ground-breaking children’s health research projects. 
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