Mapping the cerebral cortex of human brain development using high-quality MRI data

Scientists have succeeded in mapping the surface of the cerebral cortex of the young human brain with impressive resolution. The mapping, carried out using high-quality magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data, showed development in key regions of the brain from two months before an individual is born to two months after. The researchers believe this achievement will likely help future research on brain development and could serve as a novel approach to studying brain development conditions such as autism and schizophrenia. The cerebral cortex is a sheet of brain cells that wraps around the brain and is the most evolving and advanced region of the brain. It is larger in humans than any other mammal and is responsible for functions such as linguistic abilities and abstract reasoning.

From the third trimester of pregnancy to the first two years of life, there is dynamic cortical development. The cortex tends to thicken during this period and expands rapidly in terms of surface area forming complex cortical folds. Researchers have linked disturbances of this cortical thickening and expansion to schizophrenia and autism. But, due to the lack of high-resolution mapping of this period, scientists have failed to gain a deeper understanding of this stage of development in the fetal to toddler age range.

In the new study, researchers at the University of North Carolina collected a set of 1,037 high-quality MRI scans of infants from the third trimester to the two-year age range. The scanned data was then analyzed by the team using computerized image processing methods. With this, they divided the cortical surface into a virtual mesh having tiny circular areas and measured the rate of surface expansion for each of these areas.

The team was able to define 18 distinct regions and found that they matched well with their existing knowledge of the functional organs of the cortex. “All of these regions show dramatic surface expansion during this developmental window, with each region having a distinct trajectory,” said Gang Li, PhD, associate professor of radiology at UNC School of Medicine. Li is the lead author of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The map revealed that each region of the cortex had the same developmental path as its counterpart in the opposite hemisphere. Additionally, the team was also able to spot gender differences in development. According to Li, the mapping has given new insight into brain development.

Now the team aims to expand the network and use the approach to study scan datasets of children with autism or other neurodevelopmental conditions.

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