discoveries magazine

Baby’s First Map

Experts are examining the connections in babies’ brains to predict which infants might be at risk for developmental shortfalls.

Baby brain

Illustration: Benedetto Cristofani

The infant brain is famously pliable, an organ of explosive growth and unparalleled adaptability. But this period of rapid development comes with a large dose of vulnerability. Experts in brain imaging and neonatal care are collaborating to protect the neural networks of infants who are at particularly high risk: newborns who have been exposed to drugs in utero. Cedars-Sinai investigators are conducting the research with peers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Subtle changes during infancy may be greatly amplified with the unfolding of different developmental processes, exerting far-reaching consequences," says Wei Gao, PhD, director of neuroimaging research at Cedars-Sinai. "Environmental factors like drug use can have a significant impact on brain formation."

A robust body of knowledge exists about the structural development of the infant brain, but an understanding of the brain’s functional connectivity — how different areas "talk" to each other and the mechanisms that allow it to react, learn, and think — has been elusive.

To fill this knowledge gap, Gao created a functional connectome, a type of brain atlas, for infants. He traced the development of various networks using functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of healthy babies.

"We now have a preliminary understanding of how these networks — such as sensory, motor, language, and memory systems — are synchronized," Gao says. "We have created an infant connectome that we can use as a benchmark for further research."

His investigation focuses on newborns whose mothers use drugs, which puts the infants at risk for developmental and cognitive shortfalls.

"Our goal is to follow these newborns over time and look at how brain function and behavior develop," Gao explains. "Not all babies who have been exposed to drugs will have problems, but we would like to be able to predict which ones might develop brain dysfunction and take steps to safeguard them."