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FUNCTIONAL DEVELOPMENT OF NEURAL SYSTEMS
IN THE FETAL PERIOD

Fetal MRI T2 images of a 22-week-old fetus of a mother who does not have a measurable cervical length. This was a participant in our study who was generous enough to share her time and pregnancy with us in hopes that we can learn about the progress of the brain prior to the event of being born premature.

Neurodevelopmental progress during the fetal period is more rapid than at any other time in human life. However, surprisingly little data has been collected to determine the initial functional connections of the human fetal brain. Application of resting-state functional connectivity (FC) magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to the study of fetal brain development enables assessment of the earliest forms of cerebral connectivity. Our work aims to address the need to discover and characterize human fetal functional brain connectivity.

Recent evidence from FC resting-state studies in newborns suggests that neurodevelopmental impairment following preterm birth may represent a disease of neural connectivity (Lubsen et al., 2011).1 In recognition of the fact that disrupted FC may result from either the traumas associated with preterm birth, or the uterine environment of the fetus during prenatal development, we are currently engaged in a research program that will resolve these competing hypotheses.

We are presently enrolling women pregnant with fetuses between 18-39 weeks gestational age in a multi-modal MRI study. We are examining healthy versus high-risk pregnancies to enlighten our medical and scientific understanding of the impact of prenatal pressures on neural developmental trajectories.

 

1.  Lubsen, J., Vohr, B., Myers, E., Hampson, M., Lacadie, C., Schneider, K. C., Katz, K. H., Constable, R. T., Ment, L. R. (2011). Microstructural and functional connectivity in the developing preterm brain. Semin Perinatol.