For the first time, Wayne State University researchers have shown brain connectivity in fetuses, a discovery that could lead to new ways to prevent and treat brain disorders.
Research has shown that brain disorders such as autism may begin in fetal life but there hasn't been a method for seeing and studying brain development at that stage.
But Thomason's study showed that the fetal brain can be studied while in the womb using MRI scans that do not threaten the health of the infant or mother, providing a mechanism for many researchers to study fetal brain connections as they are forming and possibly learn how a lack of connections can result in brain disorders.
"By understanding how a lack of (brain) connectivity occurs, the research community can begin to identify what things influence early brain development," Thomason said. "If we know what disrupts or impedes healthy brain development, then we have a better shot at finding a way to treat and possibly prevent it."
The research, which began in November, was funded partly by the NIH and WSU. It included 25 fetuses between 24 to 38 weeks of gestation.
The findings show that brain connections strengthened between the right and left side as fetuses developed and short-distance connections in the brain network are more strongly connected than long-range connections.
It is the first study of a larger project that seeks to define how functional brain networks form in fetuses and examine the environment of the developing child in utero, and factors in the mother's life. The project plans to track the fetuses once they become infants and throughout their life so researchers can compare their neurodevelopment to what was seen in the womb. The hope is to even study the children of these fetuses, if funding allows.