Designing a Lullaby-Friendly MRI
Jun 09, 2022 Rosanna Turner
Studying an infant’s brain can help predict the first few years of a child’s development—and the ripple effect this starting point will have on their adult life.
“The brain grows the fastest during these years,” says Wei Gao, PhD, director of Neuroimaging Research at the Biomedical Imaging Research Institute at Cedars-Sinai and professor of Biomedical Sciences. “Subtle deviations from a child’s normal developmental trajectory can have a butterfly effect down the road, potentially leading to various adult-onset or child-onset developmental disorders and disease.”
The best way to map an infant’s brain in the first two years of development is by performing an MRI. But scanning babies’ brains in a research setting presents a major hurdle: To get a clear and accurate MRI scan, infants must be in a natural sleep mode and lie very still while on the scanning bed.
“Even if we can get a baby to sleep naturally before the MRI, they often wake up, especially during the transition from the mother’s arms to the scanner bed,” Gao says. “Because this movement is disturbing for the baby, I thought, ‘Why not design an MRI-compatible crib?’”
The earlier we can identify any risk in a child’s development, the earlier we can intervene to achieve better outcomes."
—Wei Gao, PhD
Making MRI Scans a Dream for Babies
Designed by Gao and his research team, the MRI-compatible crib resembles a bassinette attached to a gurney set on wheels.
Gao’s main goal was to minimize the risk of disturbing a sleeping baby during transfer, thereby increasing the chances of a successful infant brain scan. The scanner bed of the MRI is raised up to the level of the crib prior to the scan. Made of a mesh-like fabric, the bassinette can be detached from its base using a series of clasps. The rest of the bassinette and the gurney are then rolled away from the MRI machine, leaving the baby on the scanner bed without experiencing any vertical or horizontal movement.
“The prototype worked with the first baby we tested it on,” Gao says. “I was very happy.”
Identifying Risk Factors in Infancy
Gao’s MRI-compatible crib will be instrumental to the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) Study. Following a large cohort of pregnant women and their children for at least 10 years, the National Institutes of Health-funded study aims to map typical early-childhood brain development and how risk factors such as parental substance use, impoverished environments and other social determinants of health may affect young brains. Gao sees a lot of potential in early intervention.
“The first two years of a child’s development lay the foundation for their entire life,” Gao says. “The earlier we can identify any risk in a child’s development, the earlier we can intervene to achieve better outcomes.”