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  • The Advanced Baby Imaging Lab: Why Our White Matter Really Matters

  • Our five-year-old brains have already undergone some amazing changes. From the time we were born, we’ve discovered to walk, talk, count, recite the alphabet and tie our shoes. As we’ve learned each of these deceptively simple (but in reality quite complicated) tasks, our brains have been changing and adapting. Amazingly, though we take all this for granted, no one is quite sure how our brain does this, or what happens if things go wrong.

    The scientists and researchers at the Advanced Baby Imaging Lab at Brown University are trying to understand how our brains grow by studying brain development using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a safe and painless method that does not use X-rays or contrast dyes. They also employ games and puzzles to study motor skills, vision, language and memory. By combining this information, they gain a better understanding of the parts of the brain that control different skills, and how they change as we grow over the first five years of our lives.

    At the center of this research is a process called myelination. Myelin is a layer of fat that surrounds the white matter in the brain. It insulates the white matter and allows information to travel rapidly throughout the brain. As growing brains develop, myelin slowly develops, allowing information to travel more efficiently. As a result, children become better and better at different skills.

    If this myelin layer is damaged, as is the case in multiple sclerosis, or doesn’t form properly, information doesn’t travel correctly—and our brain doesn’t work properly. No one actually knows how myelin develops in healthy children; or how it builds as we develop new skills. More importantly, it isn’t known if errors in this process lead to autism or other developmental disorders.

    To answer these important questions, the National Institutes of Health are helping the Advanced Baby Imaging Lab study myelination in healthy children under 5 years old. Families with children enrolled in the study make up to four visits to the lab over two years. In exchange, they receive a copy of their child’s MR images and a written report from a psychologist detailing their child’s progress. To date, over 270 children are enrolled in the study, making the Advanced Baby Imaging lab one of the largest pediatric research imaging labs in the world.

    In addition to healthy children, the Advanced Baby Imaging Lab has begun investigating brain development in premature infants, as well as children born with significant hearing impairment, children with dyslexia, and children with early symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

    Researchers at the Advanced Baby Imaging Lab come from a wide range of backgrounds and specialties, but they are united in their interest in the developing brain. The group is led by Brown University’s Sean Deoni, PhD, a trained physicist but self professed “neuroscientist at heart” who serves as an assistant professor at Brown’s School of Engineering.

    “We are really the first group to try to understand how myelin develops in early infancy and childhood. It is a common theme that conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia and many others arise within the first few years of life, even though most cannot be diagnosed until much later. If we can pin-point when and where brain development in these children goes off the rails, we can tailor better and earlier treatment when it may be most beneficial. Like wiring a house, it’s a lot easier to change things when the house is being built than when everything is finished and painted,” said Deoni.

    To learn more about the program, call 401-863-7661 or send an email to Baby_Imaging_Lab@brown.edu.