Scientists in the UK have launched a six-year project to create the first map of babies' brain in a critical period of growth in the womb and after birth.
By the time a baby takes its first breath many of the key pathways between nerves have already been made. And some of these will help determine how a baby thinks or sees the world, and may have a role to play in the development of conditions such as autism, scientists say.
But how this rich neural network assembles in the baby before birth is relatively unchartered territory.
Researchers from Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital, King's College London, Imperial College and Oxford University aim to produce a dynamic wiring diagram of how the brain grows, at a level of detail that they say has been impossible until now.
They hope that by charting the journeys of bundles of nerves in the final three months of pregnancy, doctors will be able to understand more about how they can help in situations when this process goes wrong.
Prof David Edwards, director of the Centre for the Developing Brain, who is leading the research, says: "There is a distressing number of children in our society who grow up with problems because of things that happen to them around the time of birth or just before birth.
"It is very important to be able to scan babies before they are born, because we can capture a period when an awful lot is changing inside the brain, and it is a time when a great many of the things that might be going wrong do seem to be going wrong."
The study - known as the Developing Human Connectome Project - hopes to look at more than 1,500 babies, studying many aspects of their neurological development.
By examining the brains of babies while they are still growing in the womb, as well as those born prematurely and at full term, the scientists will try to define baselines of normal development and investigate how these may be affected by problems around birth.
Researchers aim to understand more about how the brain is affected by prematurity
And they plan to share their map with the wider research community.
Via Dr. Stefan Gruenwald