MRI scans are widely used in medicine to give doctors an image of what is going on inside the body, including mental processes, bone health, and the presence of certain illnesses such as some types of cancer. However, they have a drawback – the patient must remain completely still for the entire scan or the results will be skewed. This makes it impossible to perform MRI scans on very young children and foetuses as they are incapable of remaining still for the duration of the scan.
However, researchers at the University of Washington have found a way of correcting for the problems caused by a patient moving so that an accurate picture can be displayed. This will allow MRIs to be performed on small children and foetuses. It will mean that scientists understanding of foetus’ brain development will improve as well as the effects of the mother’s environment and diet on this development. It will also be able to more accurately measure the effects on the baby of stress, drugs or alcohol abuse from the pregnant mother and whether or not there are any early differences between babies that will later develop problems such as autism.
The technique involves taking multiple measurements of the patient at each moment, as opposed to just one, which is the traditional technique used for MRIs. The multiple images can then be repositioned to provide a more accurate estimation of what the brain of the foetus is doing when it is at rest. The method was tested on adults who were told to purposely move their heads about for the duration of the experiment. After this was successful, they scanned foetuses aged between 32 and 37 weeks old.
According to the lead author of the research, Colin Studholme, Ph.D., ‘What this is leading to is not just collecting data from individual babies but also understanding and building a four-dimensional map of brain activity and how it should emerge in a normal baby.’