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Improving understanding of infant brain development in early life

  • The human brain contains about 100 billion neurons which are the building blocks of our nervous system. 
  • Brain development and learning is the process of creating, strengthening, and discarding connections among brain neurons.  
  • Fetal life and infancy is a critical period of brain development. By the age of three a child's brain has typically reached nearly 90 per cent of its adult size.  

Our aim

The Brain Imaging in Babies Study (BIBS) aims to improve understanding of how a baby's brain develops from before birth, up until 3-4 years of age. Working with children from a variety of backgrounds and communities, we use a combination of state-of-the-art diagnostic tools such as MRI scans alongside traditional behavioural assessments to capture the earliest information on infant brain development. 

Our focus

MRI scanning is a safe way of producing detailed images using strong magnetic fields and radio waves. It does not use X-ray. Along with learning more about 'normal' development, we also try to identify features that may in future help predict whether a child will or will not develop traits of conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or ADHD. Long-term, this may help us target useful interventions early on, helping children who are most in need. 

Since COVID-19 arrived in the UK in 2020, we have been given ethical approval to include testing for this infection in the mothers and children participating in our study. This may give us an opportunity to better understand how mother and baby respond to infections. We particularly welcome mothers who have had a positive COVID-19 test during their pregnancy to join our study.

Our collaborations

As part of the EU-AIMS project - the largest mental health study in Europe – we collaborate with an international network of scientists to discover new treatment approaches for conditions such as ASD or ADHD.  Everyone with ASD and/or ADHD is different and we want to understand what biology is shared and what is unique to each individual. 

We also collaborate with scientists working on the Developing Human Connectome Project (dHCP). Led by King’s College London, Imperial College London and Oxford University, dHCP aims to make major scientific progress by creating the first four-dimensional map of the human brain connectivity from fetal to neonatal life. This will provide our project with a comprehensive reference resource for typical and atypical brain development. 

We are part of the BRAINVIEW European Training Network (ETN), an interdisciplinary scientific network across Europe which is devoted to investigating the disruptions of prenatal and early childhood development and training the research leaders of the future. 

Making a difference

We hope our project will not only uncover why some people are vulnerable to conditions like ASD and ADHD, but that it will also reveal potential protective mechanisms. In the long-run this will help us develop better treatments to improve outcomes for all children.