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First brain images of African infants enable research into cognitive effects of nutrition


Brain activity of babies in developing countries could be monitored from birth to reveal the first signs of cognitive dysfunction, using a new technique piloted by a London-based university collaboration.

The cognitive function of infants can be visualised and tracked more quickly, more accurately and more cheaply using the method, called functional near infra-red spectroscopy (fNIRS), compared to the behavioural assessments Western regions have relied upon for decades.

This is Professor Clare Elwell with an African baby wearing the near infra-red spectroscopy monitor.

Credit: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Professor Clare Elwell, Professor of Medical Physics at University College London (UCL), said: "Brain activity soon after birth has barely been studied in low-income countries, because of the lack of transportable brain imaging facilities needed to do this at any reasonable scale. We have high hopes of building on these promising findings to develop functional near infra-red spectroscopy into an assessment tool for investigating cognitive function of infants who may be at risk of malnutrition or childhood diseases associated with low income settings."

The pioneering study, published this week in Nature Scientific Reports, was performed by a collaboration of researchers from UCL; the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; the Babylab at Birkbeck, University of London; and the Medical Research Council unit in Gambia. It aimed to investigate the impact of nutrition in resource-poor regions on infant brain development, and was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Professor Clare Elwell (UCL Medical Physics & Bioengineering), said: "This is the first use of brain imaging methods to investigate localised brain activity in African infants.

"Until now, much of our understanding of brain development in low income countries has relied upon behavioural assessments which need careful cultural and linguistic translations to ensure they are accurate. Our technology, functional near infrared spectroscopy, can provide a more objective marker of brain activity."

For the studies in the Gambia, babies aged 4–8 months old were played sounds and shown videos of adults performing specific movements, such as playing 'peek-a-boo'. The fNIRS system monitored changes in blood flow to the baby's brain and showed that distinct brain regions responded to visual–social prompts, while others responded to auditory-social stimuli. Comparison of the results with those obtained from babies in the UK showed that the responses were similar in both groups.

fNIRS has previously been used to study brain development in UK infants and most recently to investigate early markers of autism during the first few months of life.

Professor Andrew Prentice (Medical Research Council International Nutrition Group, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) said: "Humans have evolved to survive and succeed on the basis of their large brain and intelligence, but nutritional deficits in early life can limit this success. In order to plan the best interventions to maximise brain function we need tools that can give us an early read out. fNIRS is showing great promise in this respect."


For comment, please contact Professor Clare Elwell, Professor of Medical Physics and Head of Near Infrared Spectroscopy Group, UCL Medical Physics & Bioengineering


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For press enquiries, contact Cher Thornhill on +44 (0)20 3108 3846 or

About UCL (University College London)

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. We are among the world's top universities, as reflected by our performance in a range of international rankings and tables. According to the Thomson Scientific Citation Index, UCL is the second most highly cited European university and the 15th most highly cited in the world. UCL has nearly 27,000 students from 150 countries and more than 9,000 employees, of whom one third are from outside the UK. The university is based in Bloomsbury in the heart of London, but also has two international campuses – UCL Australia and UCL Qatar. | Follow us on Twitter @uclnews | Watch our YouTube channel

About the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is a world-leading centre for research and postgraduate education in public and global health, with 3,900 students and more than 1,000 staff working in over 100 countries. The School is one of the highest-rated research institutions in the UK, and was recently cited as the world's leading research-focused graduate school. Our mission is to improve health and health equity in the UK and worldwide; working in partnership to achieve excellence in public and global health research, education and translation of knowledge into policy and practice. The School's TB Centre brings together over 120 experts in tuberculosis epidemiology, immunology, diagnosis and treatment working in more than 40 countries.

About Birkbeck, University of London

Birkbeck is a world-class research and teaching institution, a vibrant centre of academic excellence and London's only specialist provider of evening higher education. The College is ranked among the top one per cent of universities in the world in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012. We encourage applications from students without traditional qualifications and we have a wide range of programmes to suit every entry level. 18,000 students study with us every year. They join a community that is as diverse and cosmopolitan as London's population.

Cher Thornhill | Eurek Alert!

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