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Neuroscientist seeks better understanding of newborn brains

London, ON – The Collaborative Health Research Projects (CHRP) program has granted $545,000 to a project that is looking to better understand brain injury in newborn children. The team is led by neuroscientist Rhodri Cusack, a principal investigator at University of Western Ontario’s Brain and Mind Institute.

CHRP is a joint initiative between the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Dr Cusack and his team are developing new ways to use neuroimaging to evaluate brain function in neonates (or newborns), using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). Over the past 20 years, a great deal of research has been done on evaluating the brain functionality of adults using cognitive neuroscience tools like fMRI, but these methods have not yet been adapted to provide valuable clinical tools to assess neonates.

Currently, if clinicians suspect brain injury in a neonate, the newborn is sent for an ultrasound and in some cases, a structural MRI. The problem is, as Dr Cusack explains, that ultrasound and structural MRI aren’t able to produce enough data for clinicians to fully understand the extent of the injury or damage.

“Brains are adaptable, especially baby brains, so a newborn can easily have extensive damage to cortex and be fine while some other baby will have a tiny little lesion, which may not even be visible on a structural MRI, and be strongly affected,” he says. “We’re attempting to get a better measure of brain function, using functional MRI, where you can see what bits of the brain are actually active.”

To make clinical fMRI in newborns possible, the project will develop new analysis methods using the enormous computational power available from IBM’s new cloud computing system at Western. The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between a strong team of scientists at Western’s Brain and Mind Institute (Professors Cusack, Owen & Daley) and clinician-researchers at LHSC (Professors Han, Lee, Levin, Thompson & Gelman).