UNC and Minnesota Researchers Earn NIH Grant to Explore Infant Brain Development

Collaboration between the UNC School of Medicine and the University of Minnesota aims to provide scientists with breakthrough information about how the human brain develops from birth through early childhood.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and the University of Minnesota (UMN) have been awarded a $4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to launch the Baby Connectome Project (BCP). The BCP aims to provide scientists with unprecedented information about how the human brain develops from birth through early childhood and will uncover factors contributing to healthy brain development.

“This is an unprecedented effort to map the development of brain circuitries during a stage when our brains undergo highly dynamic changes that have life-long impacts on cognitive development. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to carry out this exciting project,” said Weili Lin, PhD, Dixie Soo Distinguished Professor in Neurological Medicine at the UNC School of Medicine, director of the UNC Biomedical Research Imaging Center (BRIC), professor and vice chair of Basic Research, Radiology and contact principal investigator of the Baby Connectome project.

The BCP is a four-year research initiative of the NIH, supported by Wyeth Nutrition, through a donation to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH). UNC and UMN are the recipients of the NIH grant.  The collaboration will bring together the Biomedical Research Imaging Center (BRIC) at UNC and the Institute of Child Development (ICD) and Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR) at UMN. Both institutions have substantial expertise in infant/pediatric neuro-imaging and behavioral assessment.

The project will characterize human brain connectivity and map patterns of structural and functional connectivity to important behavioral skills from infancy to early childhood. Additional biological (e.g., genetic markers) and environmental measures (e.g., family demographics) will be collected and examined to provide a more comprehensive picture of the factors that affect brain development.  Findings from this study will provide other scientists with a definitive foundation to inform new questions about typical and atypical brain and behavioral development. Additionally, this study promises to inform policy decisions that could directly or indirectly affect healthy brain development during early childhood.

“The UNC/UMN team is uniquely suited to perform this challenging but critical task, and we expect the data collected and results that come from the BCP to have broad implications for understanding the most dynamic period of human brain development,” said Jed Elison, PhD, a co-principal investigator of the BCP from UMN.

“Wyeth Nutrition is excited to support research at UNC and UMN through our partnership with the FNIH,” said CEO Wyeth Nutrition Mike Russomano. “This innovative research – led by two institutions at the forefront of studying brain development in children – will add to a better understanding of what is needed to support brain development, and the overall health of infants and children, in the critical first years of life.”

For the project, researchers at UNC and UMN will perform safe and non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans of 500 typically developing children, ages 0-5 years, over the course of four years. Of these 500 children, 175 will come from two other brain imaging studies already underway, one from UNC (“Early Brain Development in 1 and 2 Year Olds,” led by John Gilmore, MD) and one from UMN (“Infant Brain and Behavioral Signatures of Later Emerging Risk for Psychopathology,” led by Jed Elison, PhD). All of the data collected will be shared with the broader scientific community to accelerate discovery.

The project will include longitudinal groups, where children will be scanned four to six times at different ages, and cross-sectional groups, where they will be scanned once at distinct points in their development. In addition to the imaging data collected, researchers also will obtain parent reports and direct assessment of cognitive and behavioral development in the participating children.  All of the collected information will inform a more comprehensive picture of how emerging patterns of brain connectivity shape behavioral development in children under the age of 5.

UNC and UMN will leverage technological innovations developed through the original Human Connectome Project (HCP), a scientific endeavor funded by the NIH to create a map of the circuitry within the human brain, to investigate the structural and functional changes that occur during typical development. This project will be part of the Lifespan Human Connectome Project (L-HCP), which aims to extend the HCP to map connectivity in the developing, adult, and aging human brain. It is funded by the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, a collaborative framework through which 15 NIH institutes, centers and offices jointly support neuroscience-related research, with the aim of accelerating discoveries and reducing the burden of nervous system disorders.

If you would like to learn more on Dr. Weili Lin’s pilot study, click here to watch a brief video.

Researchers from UNC participating in the project include John Gilmore, MD (co-PI); Heather Cody Hazlett, PhD; Joe Piven, MD (co-PI); Dinggang Shen, PhD (co-PI); Keith Smith, MD, PhD; Martin Styner, PhD; Pew-Thian Yap, PhD; and Hongtu Zhu, PhD.

Researchers from UMN include Jed Elison PhD (co-PI); Kamil Ugurbil, PhD (co-PI); Essa Yacoub, PhD, and Jason Wolff, PhD.

The study coordinators at UNC are Kristine Baluyot and Soma Prum.