For the first time, "researchers have used functional MRI to visualise and quantify […] the development of cerebral connections in 25 human foetuses in good health, during the 2nd or 3rd month of pregnancy."
Currently, "irrefutable proofs indicate that many mental disorders (autism, schizophrenia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] and others) are caused by disruptions in the functional connectivity of the neuronal networks in the brain. These disruptions are very likely to occur during development, in particular during foetal life." However, "we do not know when and in what order the functional connectivity of the neurones emerges during foetal life." Hence, Dr Moriah Thomason (Wayne State University, Detroit) and her team used "functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in resting state to map the cerebral connections" of foetuses between 24 and 38 weeks of pregnancy. And the results confirm "the presence of functional bilateral connections in the foetal brain and regional connections in each hemisphere," but also that "the pattern of the connections varies according to the regions and the age of the foetus, with a growing intensity of connections as it approaches the term of the pregnancy."
The researchers claim that "these results improve our understanding of the development of the central nervous system of the human foetus and provide a basis for finding out if aggressions during foetal life play a role in the later development of disorders of the neuronal functional connectivity."
Dr Thomason says that "this study shows that it is possible to study the cerebral activity of the foetus when still in the uterus, thanks to an external MRI scanner that involves no risk for the health of the mother or the child." Moreover, "this will help the scientific community to study and discover the factors that influence early cerebral development, which could lead us to a better understanding of how disorders such as autism occur," and perhaps prevent them.
For the future, "the team intends to continue defining how the functional cerebral networks are formed during foetal life (date and patterns), and to begin to examine which factors influence the development of these networks." Furthermore, it "will examine if alterations in the normal connectivity precede the development disorders." For this purpose, long-term monitoring of infants is necessary, and is currently ongoing because, the researchers point out, "it is important […] to link the development in utero with the progress of the long-term development and results."