We are thrilled to share a ground breaking achievement in the field of neuroscience, as part of the INTERGROWTH-21st Project.
A collaborative team of 200+ researchers from multiple health and scientific institutions around the world, has unveiled the first digital atlas that illustrates the remarkable journey of human brain development in the womb. Led by the University, this exciting publication (now featured in the renowned journal Nature) shows the dynamics of normative maturation in each hemisphere of the fetal brain between 14 and 31 weeks of gestation - a crucial period in human development.
Who was involved
This project was led by the University of Oxford's Nuffield Department of Women's & Reproductive Health and the Department of Computer Science, with support from the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging, Department of Engineering Science, Big Data Institute, and Department of Psychiatry. The INTERGROWTH-21st Project received support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
What is the INTERGROWTH-21st project
Based in the Nuffield Department of Women's & Reproductive Health, INTERGROWTH-21st (The International Fetal and Newborn Growth Consortium for the 21st Century) was the world's first comprehensive study and collaborative network of its kind. It emerged from the necessity for global growth benchmarks to enhance healthcare for expectant mothers and newborns worldwide. Whilst growth standards for infants and children were available, its goal was to expand the WHO Child Growth Standards to include fetal and neonatal phases, ensuring consistent care from conception to age 5
Revolutionising Fetal Brain Mapping with Advanced Technology
This extraordinary atlas was crafted using a database of over 2,500 3-dimensional ultrasound (3D US) brain scans collected from 2,194 fetuses participating in the INTERGROWTH-21st Project. This vast study, spanning diverse global regions, focused on pregnant women and their children's health and neurodevelopment.
What makes this research truly unique is the application of advanced artificial intelligence (AI) and image processing tools to analyse a standardised dataset of 3D US scans. The result is a comprehensive map demonstrating how the fetal brain matures as pregnancy progresses.
This exciting work helps to reiterate the importance of maternal health, education, nutrition, and the environment in ensuring the healthy development of a child's body and brain. This is a significant stride in the global impact of the INTERGROWTH-21st Project, known for establishing international standards for fetal and newborn growth.
Words from the team
Primary author, Professor Ana Namburete, whose research group developed the machine learning methods, shared, "Using AI we enhanced the visibility of brain structures in the 3D US images, and generated an average depiction of the brain at each week of pregnancy during a critical period of development. Uniquely, our atlas captured patterns of brain growth from as early as 14 weeks’ gestation - filling a 6-week knowledge gap in our understanding of early fetal brain maturation. We also revealed significant asymmetries in brain maturation: for example, in the region associated with language development, which peaked at 20-26 weeks’ gestation and persisted thereafter without any differences between the sexes.”
Professor Stephen Kennedy, co-Principal Investigator of the INTERGROWTH-21st Project, added, “The atlas will help scientists answer complex biological questions about the fetal origins of cognitive function in childhood, such as how language is acquired. Using the atlas in combination with the soon to be published international standards describing the complementary growth of the fetal brain will be a valuable clinical tool in specialised, referral centres when brain development appears abnormal on ultrasound”.
Co-Principal Investigator, Professor José Villar, who jointly led the study, said: “This is the latest step in the systematic study of early human growth and development that confirms, using the most advanced research methodology applied to a large number of fetal brain scans, the similarities of growth and development of humans across the world when health, educational, nutritional and environmental needs are met: humans are very similar in all domains, including their brains, when conditions are adequate.”