Will new ways of visualizing activity in the brain improve treatments for infants?


Columbia scientists developed a new imaging technique to explore differences in how young brains and adult brains respond to stimuli and grow. Their results raise new questions about how the human brain meets its energy needs as it develops, possibly unlocking new answers for improving care for infants.

Elizabeth Hillman, associate professor of biomedical engineering and radiology at Columbia Engineering and a principal investigator at Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, along with Mariel Kozberg, a recent Columbia neurobiology graduate in Hillman’s lab, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record activity and blood flow in the brains of mice of different ages, tracking how the brain responded to stimuli. In the youngest mice, brain activity did not trigger an increase in blood flow, but as the animals matured, the brain’s blood-flow got stronger. Blood vessels deliver oxygen-rich blood to the brain, so this raised questions about whether newborn brains can function and grow without increases in blood flow.

“Newborns make an incredible transition from being inside the womb to breathing air in the delivery room,” noted Hillman. “To survive those first few hours, the newborn brain must be well prepared to withstand enormous fluctuations in the availability of oxygen.”

Hillman is currently working with researchers in the Department of Psychiatry to analyze hundreds of fMRI scans collected from children to compare with her results with mice. If the same patterns are seen in human infants, fMRI could be used to better understand, detect, and track the origins of developmental disorders in human newborns.

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