Map of the developing brain advances understandings of brain disorders

April 10, 2014

Striking images by the Martinos Center's Bruce Fischl and colleagues are helping to shed light on the origins of brain disorders including schizophrenia and autism.

Working with researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and elsewhere, and using information from ultra-high-resolution MRI and other techniques, the investigators built a comprehensive atlas of the human brain in utero. The atlas shows which genes are controlling development of which areas of the brain roughly midway through pregnancy. The researchers reported it last week in the journal Nature.

The work can provide important insights into the roots of a range of developmental disorders.

"It's a pretty big leap," Ed Lein told NPR. Lein is an investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and a senior author of the study. "Basically, there was no information of this sort prior to this project."

The Martinos Center played a significant role in the study. Center researchers scanned seven brains—including delicate and hard-to-obtain fetal specimens—using a powerful 7-Tesla MRI scanner for high-resolution multiecho flash images and a 3-Tesla scanner for diffusion images. The former provided good contrast of the different tissue types, said Allison Stevens, an author of the study and a member of Fischl's lab in the center, while the latter allowed the researchers to see the connections in the developing brain. The researchers then processed the resulting data. This ultimately led to creation of arresting images such as the above, showing the connections between regions in the developing fetal brain.

The atlas has already yielded important findings, Lein said. Notably, it shows that many genes associated with brain disorders are already switched on, suggesting that the origins of these disorders can be traced back to the developing brain. Also, researchers studying those origins now have a much better idea of where in the brain to look.

Other Martinos Center investigators who contributed to the study include Thomas Benner, Michelle Roy, Andre van der Kouwe and Lilla Zollei.