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First digital atlas of human fetal brain development published by Oxford

A research team led by the University of Oxford published the first digital atlas of human fetal brain development. It depicts the way the fetal brain develops between the 14th and 31st weeks’ gestation period. Its main findings involved the development of asymmetries earlier on in the gestation period than previously thought. 

The atlas was established using data from Intergrowth-21st, an international project with over 300 researchers and clinicians in 18 different countries whose work is coordinated by the University of Oxford. Its focus is on improving perinatal health care globally and decreasing infant mortality rates.

The atlas itself was created using 3-dimensional ultrasound brain scans which were then analyzed using artificial intelligence (AI) and image processing tools. This use of AI makes the atlas unique in its depiction of how the fetal brain matures throughout pregnancy. 

Professor Ana Namburete, the first author whose research developed the methods of machine learning, said: “Uniquely, our atlas captured patterns of brain growth from as early as 14 weeks’ gestation – filling a 6-week knowledge gap in our understanding of early fetal brain maturation. 

“We also revealed significant asymmetries in brain maturation: for example, in the region associated with language development, which peaked at 20-26 weeks’ gestation and persisted thereafter without any differences between the sexes.”

Data from the study was collected in the Intergrowth-21st Project, which involved 2,194 fetuses in eight geographical locations. Co-principal investigator of the Intergrowth-21s Project, Professor José Villar said: “This is the latest step in the systematic study of early human growth and development that confirms, using the most advanced research methodology applied to a large number of fetal brain scans, the similarities of growth and development of humans across the world,” highlighting the importance of the international nature of the study. 

The studies findings were consistent with previous results studied by Intergrowth-21st Project, on a baby’s skeletal growth and infant neurocognitive development. These previous findings helped produce the international standards for fetal development and postnatal growth, which are used internationally for research and clinical practice. 

Attention is drawn towards the importance of the mother’s health, nutrition, education, and environmental needs which are vital factors in a babies’ health and development. It also showed that asymmetries in brain development can be observed from as early as 14 weeks, with peak asymmetries in regions concerning language development maturing between 20 and 26 weeks’ gestation. 
Moving forward the atlas can be used to help investigate the origins of neurodevelopmental disorders, allowing scientists to compare the extent of deviations from the development of healthy fetal brains. Professor Stephen Kennedy, co-Principal Investigator of the Intergrowth-21st  Project, explained that “the atlas will help scientists answer complex biological questions about the fetal origins of cognitive function in childhood, such as how language is acquired.”

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