Functional MRI Reveals Secrets to Baby-Brain Activity, Opening Door to Rehabilitating Injured Brains

November 28, 2020
Whitney J. Palmer

fMRI scans show that babies’ brain activity can be influenced through associative learning, presenting a potential strategy for promoting the development of life-long skills in infants who have injured brains.

Advanced MRI imaging – in combination with robotics – offers a look into the activity inside a baby’s brain, opening the door to the possibility of rehabilitating babies who have brain injuries.

In a new study published in Cerebral Cortex, investigators from King’s College London visualized how brain activity can be changed through associations. These findings could have implications on promoting the development of speech, language, and movement, they said.

“A baby’s brain is constantly learning associations and changing its activity all the time so that it can respond to the new experiences that are around it,” said Tomoki Arichi, Ph.D., clinician scientist and clinical senior lecturer in the Centre for the Developing Brain. “In terms of influencing patients and interpreting it in a wider context, what it means is that we should be thinking about how we could help with disorders of brain development from a very early stage in life because we know that experience is constantly shaping the newborn brain’s activity.”

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This study, he said, is the first to show that it is possible to alter a baby’s brain activity through associative learning with different types of sensory experiences, particularly sound.

“We…found that when a baby is learning, it actually is activating lots of different parts of the brain, so it is starting to incorporate the ‘wider network’ inside the brain which is important for processing activity,” Arichi explained.

To assess brain activity in babies, the team played the sound of a jingling bell for six seconds for 24 infants. They paired the sound with the gentle movement prompted by a custom-made 3D printed robot that they strapped to each baby’s right hand. Throughout the experiment, investigators used a functional MRI to measure brain activity.

At the end of 20 minutes of repeating the association between the sound and the movement, the team played the sound alone and compared the babies’ brain activity to that captured during the learning period. The results, Arichi said, not only shed light on what happened inside a normal baby brain, but it can also help guide clinicians who are working with infants who have injured brains.

For example, he said, if a baby cannot process movement or movement is not associated with normal activity inside his or her brain, such as in the case of cerebral palsy, clinicians could try using the association with sound to help induce learning, potentially amplifying or rehabilitating their movements.

“With our findings, it raises the possibility of trying to do something to help with that through targeted stimulation and learning associations,” Arichi said. “It is possible to induce activity inside the part of the brain that normally processes movement, for instance, just by using a single sound. This could be used in conjunction with rehabilitation or to try to help guide brain development early in life.”

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