UCSF Study Shows 3D Images of Fetal Development

By Jason Bardi

Three views of the right (blue) and left (green) hippocampus of a healthy develo

Three views of the right (blue) and left (green) hippocampus of a healthy developing fetus at 28 weeks gestation.

Women midway through the second trimester of pregnancy may think of ultrasound imaging as a reassuring, even miraculous, event – images of their tiny bundles of joy moving and kicking in real time. But for obstetricians who oversee high-risk pregnancies and worry about complications with neuronal development, ultrasound images can be disappointing.

"They are actually not very good at looking at the brain tissue itself," said Orit Glenn, MD, associate professor of Radiology at UCSF who specializes in fetal and pediatric MR neuroimaging.  

A much better technique for unlocking the secret signs of a developing fetal brain is MRI, said Glenn, who is the principal investigator involved of a project at UCSF funded by the National Institutes of Health to study fetal brain development in specific conditions and to correlate fetal MRI findings with neurodevelopmental outcomes.

At the 63rd Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology last week in Hawaii, Francois D. Jacob, MD, a visiting pediatric neurology resident who spent the summer working with Glenn’s group, presents a portion of this work. They used MRI to investigate the development of a small comma-shaped portion of the brain called the hippocampus, which is essential for learning and memory. Nobody has ever looked at the development of this part of the brain in live, healthy fetuses.

In the study, Glenn, Jacob and their colleagues took MRIs of 20 healthy women in the 21st to 31st week of pregnancy. They created hi-res 3D images of the developing fetal brains and showed that the volume of the hippocampus increases linearly during this time period.

The data will be helpful for future studies, Glenn said, allowing doctors and researchers to compare these normally developing fetal brains to brain images of fetuses with developmental diseases or suspected abnormalities of hippocampal structure and function.

The presentation, titled "Fetal Hippocampal Development: Analysis by Magnetic Resonance Imaging Volumetry," was authored by Francois D. Jacob, Piotr Habas, Kio Kim, James Corbett-Detig, Duan Xu, Colin Studholme, and Orit Glenn.