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World’s first digital atlas of human fetal brain development published

The scientists gained an understanding of significant asymmetries in brain maturation: for example, in the region associated with language development.

The baby is the sole survivor of her immediate family, the rest of whom were all killed when a 7.8-magnitude quake struck Syria, flattening the family home
The baby is the sole survivor of her immediate family, the rest of whom were all killed when a 7.8-magnitude quake struck Syria, flattening the family home - Copyright AFP BULENT KILIC
The baby is the sole survivor of her immediate family, the rest of whom were all killed when a 7.8-magnitude quake struck Syria, flattening the family home - Copyright AFP BULENT KILIC

The first digital atlas showing how the human brain develops in the womb has been published by a global research team led by the University of Oxford. The output is from a collaboration of over 200 researchers around the world, involving multiple health and scientific institutions. This is first digital atlas showing the dynamics of normative maturation of each hemisphere of the fetal brain between 14 and 31 weeks’ gestation. This time period represents a critical period of human development.

The atlas was generated using over 2,500 3-dimensional ultrasound brain scans that were acquired serially during pregnancy from 2,194 fetuses in the U.S. INTERGROWTH-21st Project (a large population-based study of healthy pregnant women living in eight diverse geographical regions of the world), whose children had satisfactory growth and neurodevelopment at 2 years of age.

The study is is the first time where an international dataset has been used, of scans collected using standardised methods and equipment, and then analysed with advanced artificial intelligence and image processing tools.

The AI was used to construct a map showing how the fetal brain matures as pregnancy advances and helps to advance in the field of neuroscience.

The results are consistent with previously reported findings for fetal skeletal growth, newborn size and infant neurocognitive development. The results highlight an important public health message: a mother’s health, educational, nutritional and environmental needs must be met to ensure that her child’s body and brain develop healthily.

The findings further contribute to the global impact of the INTERGROWTH-21st Project, which has previously produced international standards for fetal growth, newborn size and the postnatal growth of preterm babies, that are being widely adopted across the world for clinical and research purposes.

By capturing patterns of brain growth from as early as 14 weeks’ gestation, this fills a 6-week knowledge gap in medical understanding of early fetal brain maturation. Through this, the scientists gained an understanding of significant asymmetries in brain maturation: for example, in the region associated with language development, which peaked at 20-26 weeks’ gestation and persisted thereafter without any differences between the sexes.

The research will also help to develop international standards describing the complementary growth of the fetal brain and provide a clinical tool in specialised, referral centres when brain development appears abnormal on ultrasound.

The research appears in the journal Nature, titled“Normative spatiotemporal fetal brain maturation with satisfactory development at 2 years”.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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