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02 June 2021

Newborn brain scans available online in large scale open-source project, clarifying how some conditions develop

The images uncover how wiring and function of the brain develops during pregnancy and after birth, shedding light on how conditions like autism develop, and how problems in pregnancy affect brain growth

3. dHCP data release 3_comms (T2 w slices 28w to 44wk)[2]
Image: Slices through T2 weighted images showing brain development in human babies during 28-44 weeks of gestation.

The Developing Human Connectome Project (dHCP) has performed ground-breaking Magnetic Resonance (MR) brain scans of over 800 newborn babies. A collaboration between King’s College London, Imperial College London and the University of Oxford, the images are the team's third open-source large-scale data release of this project, uncovering how wiring and function of the brain develops during pregnancy and after birth, shedding light on how conditions like autism develop, and how problems in pregnancy affect brain growth.

These new scans complete a neonatal dataset of brain images and associated clinical data. The imaging data includes structural imaging, structural connectivity data (diffusion MRI) and functional connectivity data (resting-state fMRI).

Professor David Edwards, corresponding principal investigator, believes that, with the data from this release, researchers can map the effects of many factors on brain development, for instance examining the effects of air pollution or maternal health on the developing brain.

“We have health outcome data, so researchers can also look at how the brain at birth predicts what you are like later on,” he said.

This data release comes with simple accompanying metadata: sex, age at birth, age at scan, birthweight, head circumference and radiology score. Future data releases will provide fetal images (imaging babies in the womb), more detailed ancillary data as well as genetic and clinical data.

For these scans, most of the babies were imaged while naturally asleep. If the baby woke up, scanning was stopped and attempts made to resettle before proceeding. If a baby moved, the team ensured all the data was motion corrected, largely using methods developed specifically for the dHCP project, in order to produce highly detailed and rich information on brain development.

Currently the researchers are analysing the images to ask questions about how the brain develops, how air pollution might affect brain growth as a fetus or as a newborn, and whether early birth negatively affects brain development.

It’s completely novel in the sense that it’s the largest data set yet created and it’s free for people to use. We’re providing the world with a chance to make a map of whatever feature of normal development they want to study – whether it’s the growth of the frontal lobe, or cerebellar function – whatever it is, this is the data you can use to make your map.

Professor David Edwards, Director of the Centre for the Developing Brain, Professor of Paediatrics and Neonatal Medicine, Head of the Department of Perinatal Imaging and Health, School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences

The dHCP dataset presents a unique resource for understanding brain development using advanced computational tools. We have already started exploring the development of AI approaches to ask questions about how the brain develops.

Professor Daniel Rueckert, Imperial College London

This is the result of many years hard coordinated work across our 3 universities, and has resulted in the most amazing, rich data on how the brain develops just before and after birth. We're very excited to release the dataset to the international research community.

Professor Steve Smith, Oxford University

During the project we have developed dedicated receiver coils and patient handling, as well as MR acquisition, image reconstruction and analysis methods all specifically optimised for neonates. We hope that the resulting data will be valuable to many researchers and will provide an enduring resource that will help significantly to drive forward understanding of human brain developmental.

Professor Jo Hajnal, School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences, King’s College London

The research consortium is funded by a €15 million Synergy grant from the European Research Council. The aim is to ensure data is shared as widely as possible. Future releases will include data from babies still in the womb as well as information on children’s genes and their abilities as they grow up.

Researchers are able to download the data pack now. 

The Developing Human Connectome Project (dHCP), led by King’s College London, Imperial College London and Oxford University, aims to make major scientific progress by creating the first 4-dimensional connectome of early life. Our goal is to create a dynamic map of human brain connectivity from 20 to 44 weeks post-conceptional age, which will link together imaging, clinical, behavioural, and genetic information. This unique setting, with imaging and ancillary data in an expandable open-source informatics structure, will permit wide use by the scientific community, and to undertake pioneer studies into normal and abnormal development by studying a well-phenotyped and genotyped group of infants with specific genetic and environmental risks that could lead to Autistic Spectrum Disorder or Cerebral Palsy.

In this story

Jo Hajnal

Professor of Imaging Science

David  Edwards

Director, Insititute for Women & Children's Health