Mind Control: How Newborn Babies Control Their Brains

Image Courtesy of Neuroscience News.

Babies can often seem a bit out of control, but it’s not their fault—at birth, babies are just beginning to develop the networks in their brains necessary to properly transition between mental states. The ability to control that transition, called network controllability, relies on connections formed by our brains’ white matter. Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine have recently uncovered new information about how network controllability in infants arises. Their study sought to discover to what extent full-term and preterm infants possess network controllability and measure how this controllability at birth affects cognitive function in the future.

Yale professor Dustin Scheinost and graduate student Huili Sun used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data from infants’ brains to model brain dynamics and development. fMRI can be used to assess which areas of the brain consume more oxygen during cognitive tasks and to detail white matter activity. With fMRI data, Scheinost and Sun discovered that at birth, the frontal and occipital lobes have the highest average network controllability. Also, compared to term infants, preterm infants’ controllability matured faster to catch up to term-born peers.

This research has opened doors for future investigation into neonatal brain connectivity. “We are starting to see the sample sizes increase, and we are in a position where we can actually start applying some of our more complicated methods to infant imaging data,” Scheinost said. This research also gives hope for discovering risk factors for abnormal brain development. “We do have some follow-up studies on how factors such as maternal mental health or socioeconomic status can affect babies’ brain maturation, which is giving us some exciting results,” Sun said. Scheinost and Sun’s research leaves much to the imagination for the future of neonatal technological advances and provides hope for further progress in that field.