Scientists show brain 'wiring' in babies

King's College London scientists funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) have shown, for the first time, how our brain 'wiring' develops in the first few months of life.

Using a new imaging technique, the scientists monitored the formation of insulating layers around nerve cells, a process called myelination, which is vital for normal brain function. Damage to the myelination process is believed to contribute to a range of neurological and psychiatric disorders, including autism and intellectual disability.

In very premature babies, myelination can be particularly prone to damage. The researchers hope that their new imaging technique will allow doctors directly to measure whether the treatments given to premature infants encourage normal brain development, while also shedding light on the biological roots of a host of neurological and psychiatric disorders.

The scientists, based in the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) for Mental Health at King's College London, Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) scanned 14 healthy babies born at full term.

The babies were scanned while asleep using a specially-modified, quiet, baby-friendly MRI scanner. To build up a picture of their myelin development, the researchers scanned the infants monthly between 3 and 11 months. By the age of nine months, myelination was visible in all brain areas and in some regions had developed to a near adult-like level.

Healthy brain development