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Description: You have probably heard or read about examples of the recent huge jump in research on the functioning of the human brain made possible with the use of fMRI or Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging that allows us to follow the inner neurochemical workings of the human brain while the human who owns it is looking at, thinking about, or experiencing stimuli the researchers control. fMRI’s give us this data from the brains of human adults but what about the important developmental questions of whether babies’ brains work the same way that adult brains do (or do they require years of experience and “calibration” before we see adult –like brain activation patterns)? Answering this question involves huge methodological challenges. MRI machines are confining, very noisy and require the person ben g scanned top lie still and concentrate on the same thing for sometimes one or two hours. Not the sort of place an infant would tolerate for a minute let alone for an hour. So what to do and what might we find if we can figure it out? Have a read through the article linked below to find out.

Source: A glimpse in the workings of the baby brain, Science News ScienceDaily and MIT.

Date: January 11, 2017

Photo Credit:  denisismagilov/Fotolia

Links:  Article Link — https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170111132818.htm

As described in the article two big alterations needed to be made to accommodate the gathering of fMRI data from infants. First the MRI machine was modified by making it MUCH quieter and by physically reconstructing the scanner to make it possible for one of the infant’s parents to be in the scanner with him or her. The other methodological adjustment involved setting up a mirror so that the infant could watch movies that were put together to provide many examples of different types of visual scenes, some social (human faces etc.) and some physical environments and objects. Further the researchers only recorded the fMRI data when the infants were paying attention to the movie (which, despite the methodological adjustments, yielded a grand total of just 4 hours of data from 26 hours of MRI time by 17 babies, still quite an onerous data gathering task). The results, however,  were amazing, showing that regions of the brain that seem to specialize in processing human faces and other areas that specialized in processing objects and environments are already specialized for those tasks by 3 to 8 months. This is a surprise as we used to believe that it took many months and perhaps years for developing human brain to specialize. The finding suggests both that babies brains are likely ready to specialize and become calibrated to do so very early in development. Once specialized, the processing driven by those areas of the brain may be involved in guiding the further specialization of related brain regions. More research is, of course needed, but now the MIT MRI researchers have a baby friendly scanner and metrological techniques they need to do just that.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Find a few online images of MRI scanners and briefly describe what needs to be changed in they are to be used from brain function scanning research with human babies.
  2. What specific functions did the adapted fMRI methodologies show in the brains of the infants in the study? Did the examples provided seem to you to fit the categories they were ascribed to be the researchers?
  3. What sorts of additional scanning studies need to be done to advance the finding reported in the article?

References (Read Further):

Ben Deen, Hilary Richardson, Daniel D. Dilks, Atsushi Takahashi, Boris Keil, Lawrence L. Wald, Nancy Kanwisher, Rebecca Saxe. Organization of high-level visual cortex in human infants. Nature Communications, 2017; 8: 13995 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms13995

Fransson, P., Skiöld, B., Engström, M., Hallberg, B., Mosskin, M., Åden, U., … & Blennow, M. (2009). Spontaneous brain activity in the newborn brain during natural sleep—an fMRI study in infants born at full term. Pediatric research, 66(3), 301-305. http://www.nature.com/pr/journal/v66/n3/full/pr2009205a.html

Venuti, P., Caria, A., Esposito, G., De Pisapia, N., Bornstein, M. H., & de Falco, S. (2012). Differential brain responses to cries of infants with autistic disorder and typical development: An fMRI study. Research in developmental disabilities, 33(6), 2255-2264. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3496246/

Smyser, C. D., Dosenbach, N. U., Smyser, T. A., Snyder, A. Z., Rogers, C. E., Inder, T. E., … & Neil, J. J. (2016). Prediction of brain maturity in infants using machine-learning algorithms. NeuroImage. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/bf52/cc0ded26e796f427d24a272948e37d0ed857.pdf

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