The Developing Human Connectome Project Announces Its First Open Access Data Release

Scientists today have published ground-breaking scans of newborn babies’ brains which researchers from all over the world can download and use to study how the human brain develops. The images represent the first public outputs of this project, which will uncover how the brain develops, looking at the wiring and function of the brain during pregnancy and how this changes after birth. The dHCP researchers are sharing their images and methods online so that other scientists from around the world can use the data in their own research.

The dHCP project uses Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and has developed new techniques which allow the brains of fetuses and babies to be acquired. The researchers have overcome problems caused by the babies movement and small size, as well as the difficulties in keeping vulnerable infants safe in the MRI scanner, so that now they can produce highly detailed and rich information on brain development.

The project will help understand how important diseases like autism develop, or how problems in pregnancy affect brain growth

The Developing Human Connectome Project is a major advance in understanding human brain development- it will provide the first map of how the brain’s connections develop, and how this goes wrong in disease “ Prof David Edwards, King’s College London, Lead Principal Investigator

The research consortium is funded by a €15 million grant from the European Research Council, and one of the goals of the project is to make sure that the data is shared as widely as possible. The preliminary set being released today will be followed by further data releases until a very large dataset, together with genetic and other information will be available.

For this research to happen, Prof Jo Hajnal’s team at King’s College London had to develop new MRI technology specifically designed to provide high resolution scans of newborn and fetal brains. Professor Daniel Rueckert’s group from imperial College London developed new computer programs to analyse the images. He explains, We have been developing novel approaches that help researchers by automatically analysing the rich and comprehensive MR images that are collected as part of dHCP”. At the University of Oxford Prof Steve Smith’s team has been developing specific techniques to define where the connections are in the developing brain.

The project is ongoing, and as well as studying more babies the team at St. Thomas’ Hospital are now recruiting pregnant mothers for fetal scanning. Scanning the brain of a fetus inside the womb poses a whole new range of technical challenges. While there is much more to come, the first release of images today will allow scientists around the world to start to explore these powerful images and begin mapping out the complexities of human brain development in a whole new way.