Glimpsing a baby’s brain: Advanced neuroimaging

Surprisingly little is known about the brains of babies under age 2 — because of the challenges of safely imaging children so young. Head-circumference measures at the pediatrician’s office tell very little about what’s going on inside. But there’s much to know, because rapidly developing brains are vulnerable to injury.

Here, Ellen Grant, a neuroradiologist trained in theoretical physics, describes how advanced imaging techniques and computational science are providing a better understanding of the newborn and even fetal brain. With these tools, neurologists can watch the brain as it forms and folds, track the growth of individual brain structures, and detect problems in brain organization before anything can be noticed by parents or physicians — then correlate these measurements with child developmental measures.

Children’s Hospital Boston is building a neuroimaging facility with specially designed, baby-sized equipment — the only one in the world to be situated near a neonatal and pediatric intensive care unit. It will help answer questions like: What prenatal brain development is missed when a baby is born even two weeks shy of its due date? What does a brain structure growing out of synch at 6 months mean for language development in preschool? Are interventions for brain injury, such as hypothermia, effective? Grant’s ultimate goal is to get advanced neuroimaging into routine clinical care, to monitor infants and newborns with brain injury, predict their future course, and evaluate new treatments.