Wayne State University School of Medicine researchers have shown that brain connectivity in human fetuses can be measured, which could translate into new ways to diagnose, prevent and treat brain disorders that occur early in life, such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.

A team led by neuroscientist Moriah Thomason, Ph.D., assistant professor of the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute and Pediatrics at the WSU School of Medicine and director of the Perinatal Neural Connectivity Unit of the Perinatology Research Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health, has shown that it is possible to measure brain circuits as they form in fetal life, using methods that are safe to the mother and her developing child.

ultrasound showing brain of a fetus

This fetal functional connectivity map shows connectivity between brain regions that will later process visual information. The statistical group connectivity map for 25 fetuses ages 24-38 weeks is shown in red-yellow hues on a reference MRI anatomical image from a single 32 week fetal study participant. Areas demonstrating the strongest functional connectivity are shown in bright yellow; all colored areas showed statistical connectivity at a threshold of p < .001, corrected for multiple comparisons. The location of the image corresponds to x = 8 in Montreal Neurological Institute coordinate conventions. The data demonstrates that it is possible to study functional brain connections as they form in utero. 



Thomason’s team applies functional magnetic resonance imaging to study communication or connectivity between brain areas in human fetuses beginning in the second trimester of pregnancy. This work has already led to new insights about the order and timing with which the brain becomes “wired up” in utero.

While connections in the brain are mostly predetermined, they can be shaped by environmental conditions. This is an exciting future direction for Thomason and her team. They plan to look at the mother’s environment during pregnancy to learn what shapes brain development for better or for worse. By understanding the impact of the environment on brain development at the very beginning of life, Thomason’s team hopes to help women to learn how to give their babies a “head start.”

Thomason also follows women and their babies over time to discover which infants go on to flourish and which are developmentally delayed. “By linking the wiring of the brain in the womb to achievements made by the infants in the first years of life, we have an opportunity to identify disordered development early,” said Thomason. “Also, if we understand the nature of the problem (the brain basis), we have much better entry for the development of new treatments and therapies.”