What contributes to a healthy brain?

Early childhood is the most rapid and dynamic period of brain development. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine researchers with the Baby Connectome Project are studying the factors that contribute to a healthy brain and early indicators of autism.

TRANSCRIPT

Early childhood is the most rapid and dynamic period of brain development.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, researchers with the Baby Connectome Project are studying the factors that contribute to a healthy brain and early indicators of autism.

Here's the story.

♪♪

You're looking at 3-D images of children at 6 months, 12 months, and 24 months.

The changes are dramatic.

That's because early childhood is the most rapid and dynamic period of brain development.

There is so much being learned in a short period of time.

But it turns out that brain growth is not uniform.

Obviously, when the brain grows from a small brain to a large brain, it's not a proportional growth for all part of the brains.

Different part of brain has different trajectories.

Some of the region grows faster, some of the region grows slower.

[ Children playing ]

The fastest-developing areas of the brain coincide with skills the child is learning at that time, such as fine motor skills, walking, speech.

The area grows because neural connections are being made.

This is the baby's eye, and this is the brain inside the skull.

And, basically, what you can see is -- The cortical rim here is the gray matter of the brain, and that's where all the neurons are.

So, that's where kind of the work of thinking and sensing things and all of that happens.

And then, this lighter place here is actually what we call the white matter, and that's the connections between the neurons.

So, a neuron that's here that wants to talk to a neuron here has to communicate through a long track that goes through the brain.

♪ And you know it, clap your hands ♪ [ Clapping ]

Those discoveries stem from the Baby Connectome Project.

It's a four-year study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

The project aims to produce unprecedented information about early brain development from birth through early childhood, as well as the factors contributing to a healthy brain.

So, this screen image, you know, from the same subject, same case.

Okay.

And you have the image acquired at 2 week, 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, and 12 months.

For the project, researchers are performing safe and non-invasive brain scans of 500 children aged 0 to 5 years.

It looks like, in the first year of life, that the sensory motor regions of the brain -- the motor cortex or the visual cortex that we process visual information -- is more developed at birth.

It's already kind of coming online.

And then, in the first year or two of life, the higher-order places of the brain that do thinking and higher-order integration of information, they develop very rapidly in the first year or two of life.

And where are those on that?

So, where's the part that's already good?

Well, the motor cortex is roughly in here, and the visual cortex is in the back here, and then some of the higher integrative functions are in the front cortex here and the parietal cortex right in here.

You would be surprised how much of the brain grow in the first year of life.

I mean, it grows to almost 90% of the adult brain size within one year.

So, our goal is to use a non-invasive imaging approach to really understand and characterize and quantify the change associated with structures, functions, and some microstructural changes.

And so, coupled with that, then we can learn about, well, so, if a subject start to walk, which part of brain actually responsible for all this behavior changes?

Or, if a toddler start to be able to become more attached to their parents, for example, which part of the brain is actually responsible for attachment?

Scientists also hope that, by identifying the factors that contribute to healthy brain development, they can also learn how to predict whether infants at high risk will develop autism.

There's very good reason to think that we can eventually identify brain biomarkers that could predict who's gonna get autism.

That opens up the door to intervention in the first year.

Of course, we don't know what interventions to use, but we have some ideas.

It's a time when the brain is much more amenable to change, much more plastic.

It's a time before the onset of symptoms, so we don't have those difficulties to deal with.

And there's, I think, a lot of excitement about the potential promise of that.

Scientists are using brain scans to study infants at higher risk for developing autism because they had an older sibling with the disease.

When we put a child that's gonna end up with autism, at two or three, next to a child that is not gonna end up with autism, at six months, we can't really distinguish them, as far as the features of autism.

It's not till the second year -- or late in the first year, the second year -- that autism kind of unfolds or emerges.

Our group has begun to study the brain changes that go from not having autism to having autism.

And so, one of the most exciting areas is that we believe we're beginning to have the evidence that we can predict, in the first year of life, based on brain biomarkers, in what we call high-familial-risk kids -- so kids that have an older sibling with autism, that are already at an increased risk, but that we can predict who's gonna develop autism.

The imaging really is just kind of a tool, an essential tool, to move us forward to coming up with prediction and targeted treatment.