Babies' brains more advanced than previously thought

Research into the development and formation of babies’ brains has shown that they are more advanced than previously thought, and that they may spend their time in ‘conscious introspection’.

Researchers used functional MRI scanning to look at ‘resting state’ networks of 70 babies at between 29 and 43 weeks who were receiving treatment at the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, and found that they are born with a key collection of networks already formed in their brains, as advanced as a fully grown adult. 

Resting state networks are connected systems of neurons that are constantly functioning even when a person is not focusing on a particular task. It had previously been thought that such networks were not fully formed in new born children, being developed during early childhood. However scientists have found evidence that one particular resting state, the default mode network, was fully developed at birth, beginning around the third trimester and usually becoming fully formed around 40 weeks.  

The default mode network is highly active when somebody is not involved in a specific task and is thought to be heavily linked to “introspection and dreaming,” according to Imperial College scientists.

“Some researchers have said that the default mode network is responsible for introspection – retrieving autobiographical memories and envisioning the future, etc.,” said Professor David Edwards, lead author of the study from the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre at Imperial College London. “The fact that we found it in newborn babies suggests that either being a fetus is a lot more fun than any of us can remember – lying there happily introspecting and thinking about the future – or that this theory is mistaken.

“Our study shows that babies’ brains are more fully formed than we thought. More generally, we sometimes expect to be able to explain the activity we can see on brain scans terms of someone thinking or doing some task. However, most of the brain is probably engaged in activities of which we are completely unaware, and it is this complex background activity that we are
detecting.”

A specially developed “four-dimensional brain atlas” was used to map activity in the brains of babies in order to compare with what is known with other brain networks.  It is hoped that the researchers can now look at how resting state networks are affected by illness, and possibly how to diagnose any problems that may arise.