Investigators Develop New Method for Assessing Infant Brain Health

April 29, 2021
Skylar Kenney, Assistant Editor

Researchers have created a new tool that allows doctors and scientists to evaluate infant brain health by assessing the concentration of various metabolites in the brain, according to a study published in NMR in Biomedicine. The tool compiled data from 140 infants to determine normal ranges for these metabolites.

According to the researchers, metabolites play an important role in normal brain growth, development, and function. High or low metabolite levels in the brain may be early indicators of problems with brain function or development. By measuring the concentrations of key metabolites, the researchers are able to spot certain problems early, allowing for interventions that can prevent damage to the growing brain.

“For example, we look at choline, which plays a role in building myelin, the sheath that allows electrical impulses to travel along neurons,” said Ellen Grant, MD, director of the Fetal Neo-Natal Neuroimaging and Developmental Science Center at Boston Children's Hospital, in a press release. “Another metabolite, called NAA, is important to the healthy growth and proliferation of dendrites, the branches on neurons that receive signals from other neurons.”

Typically, assessing brain metabolites requires the use of proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (proton MRS), a technology that uses an MRI not for visual imaging but to detect and identify specific molecules in the tissues of interest. The most common process is costly and time-consuming, requiring extensive imaging and detailed calculations of the amount of water inside and outside brain tissues to standardize these measurements. In order to address this, the investigators used proton MRS to scan the brains of 140 infants at approximately 1 month and 3 months of age. In addition to using water as a reference, the team also compiled data from several key metabolites in their calculations, allowing them to create a tool that makes use of standard values for several metabolites when assessing the concentration of any 1 metabolite in an infant's brain.

“What most everybody does is they look at a simple ratio between metabolite 1 and metabolite 2,” said Ryan Larsen, PhD, in the release. “But if that ratio is low, does that mean that metabolite 1 is low or that metabolite 2 is high? It becomes a problem of interpretation.”

To solve this problem, the team assessed relationships between 7 key metabolites to build a database of normal values for each one at different time points, and to show how metabolite concentrations change in relation to one another as the infant's brain develops. The tool developed with this data offers a checklist of reference brain metabolites that users can select in different combinations to more clearly understand an individual infant's profile.

“Spectroscopy is really tough to do but when it's done in the right way, it can help us find out more about the brain,” said Borjan Gagoski, PhD, in the release. “This approach has great potential because we can detect abnormalities and diseases before we can actually see anything on the structural scans. And it's really important to monitor brain health at this stage of life.”

REFERENCE

Team builds better tool for assessing infant brain health [news release]. EurekAlert; April 29, 2021. Accessed April 29, 2021. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-04/uoia-tbb042721.php