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Mapping babies brains

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Mapping babies’ brains to predict and prevent future problems

Premature babies are at increased risk of developing disabilities but it is difficult to know which are most likely to be affected. Action funding has helped to develop a computer-aided tool to read MRI brain scans and identify abnormal development in newborn babies.

This new technique, once fully developed, could allow doctors to quickly tell whether or not a baby has suffered brain damage and is likely to develop a disability in the future. It could give invaluable, early information and ensure babies get the best help as soon as possible to prevent or minimise future disability.

Around 61,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK each year. The earlier a baby is born, the greater the risks.

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, can be safely used to take detailed pictures of a baby’s brain to help identify areas of damage. But interpreting these images requires specialist skills that very few health professionals have.

In 2009 Action Medical Research awarded more than £148,000 to researchers based at Imperial College London. Led by Professor Daniel Rueckert and Professor David Edwards, the team used MRI to produce a map of typical brain development in healthy newborn babies.

They did this by taking scans and labelling by hand each region of the brain visible, combining information from many images. They could then compare scans of at-risk babies with their map of normal development.

A year later, with support and additional funding from Action, the team secured a grant of over £1m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to allow them to use their brain maps to develop a computer programme to automatically identify areas of abnormal brain development on MRI scans.

The results of this work are now being used in clinical research and the team aim to develop their computer programme into a diagnostic tool which could become part of routine care.