You are here:

Our impact: Mapping babies’ brains to predict and prevent future problems

Published on


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.

Having a baby prematurely usually comes as a complete shock to parents and causes a huge amount of worry about the baby’s future. Being born too soon puts babies at risk of developing disabilities such as cerebral palsy, speech problems and learning difficulties. But these may not become apparent until months or even years later, meaning parents face an anxious wait and babies may miss out on receiving early treatment that could prevent or at least minimise future difficulties.

The months just before and after birth are crucial for the development of the brain and being born early can disrupt vital processes, causing lasting damage. The earlier a baby is born, the greater the risk.

Magnetic resonance imaging, better known as MRI, can be safely used to take detailed pictures of a baby’s brain and could help identify areas of damage. But interpreting these images is difficult and time consuming, requiring specialist skills that only a 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 each region of the brain visible, combining information from many images.

They could then compare brain scans of at-risk babies with their map of normal development to spot areas which may be developing differently. But all this labelling and comparison was done by hand and as Professor Rueckert explains: “It takes over a hundred hours for a highly trained scientist to manually label that many regions in a neonatal brain, which is impossible to do on a routine basis.”

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.

This new technique could allow doctors to tell whether or not a baby has suffered brain damage and is likely to develop a disability in the future. This could also guide earlier treatment. For parents, it could give invaluable information about what the future might hold and ensure babies get the best help as soon as possible.

“Difficulties in predicting which babies will go on to develop disabilities has been a major issue for people who care for them. Better predictions will give us the chance to improve babies’ care sooner rather than later, which could greatly improve their lives,” says Professor Rueckert.

The potential of this research to change lives is huge. It could mean premature babies, and other babies who are at risk of brain damage, could eventually benefit from these scans as part of their routine care.


Sam has just turned three and is having the time of his life. He chats constantly, runs everywhere at speed and is fascinated by all that that the world has to offer. “It’s wonderful to experience life through the eyes of a toddler and watch him grow and develop,” says his proud mum Jo, who is acutely aware that things could have been very different.

Sam was born 10 weeks early after Jo needed emergency bowel surgery during her pregnancy. She and husband Will knew that the earlier a baby is born, the higher the risk of serious complications, but when their tiny son arrived doctors could give them no predictions. “We were simply told that, at 30 weeks, you never quite know what the future is going to hold,” she recalls.

Sam weighed just 3lbs 6oz at birth but seemed healthy. Never the less he spent his first five weeks in intensive care.

“We were incredibly fortunate that test after test showed he was growing outside of the womb as any other child born at full term. But although he seemed to make good progress he wasn’t given the all clear until he was two years old. Until that time we lived with the worry that being born so early could affect Sam’s development," says Jo. 

"We were all too aware that his prematurity could mean he would live life with a disability or special needs. I can still scarcely believe he’s so fit and healthy, completely unscathed.”

Jo recently gave birth to her second son, Thomas, who was born the day after his due date. “It’s only now, when I’m so enjoying having a young baby who was healthy from birth and discharged without issue, that I realised I was wracked with anxiety in the early months of Sam’s life,” she says.

“We could have been spared endlessly worrying, had we been given the all clear much sooner. The work supported by Action is a vital piece of research that could be life-changing for prospective parents.”

With your help we are currently funding more new research to help the most vulnerable babies. Thank you for your support.