CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Brain images from newborns are giving scientists a glimpse of the future -- not just into the lives of their tiny subjects but also paths to treatment for adult patients with schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found degeneration in the brains of 2-week-old infants, a result considered a "game changer" for the field of brain research, said Jay Giedd, a brain imaging specialist for the National Institute of Mental Health.
"Our original model was that the brain was fine until someone got the illness," Giedd said.
"This work shows that these changes are there probably from conception. It also suggests that while these traits don't cause brain damage, they set up the brain to be slightly different."
The researchers examined scans of 272 newborns. About 15 percent were found to have smaller medial temporal lobe sections.
"The medial temporal lobe plays an important role in memory," said Rebecca Knickmeyer, a UNC assistant professor of psychiatry and co-author of the research, published last month in Cerebral Cortex, an online journal.
"The idea is that this is an anatomical vulnerability. If you start out with less, you might hit active symptoms earlier in life."
The researchers also found specific gene traits associated with Alzheimer's in babies with the smaller media temporal lobes.
"We were interested because it was generally known that people's genes contribute to psychiatric conditions later in life, but pretty much all the existing studies were in adults," Knickmeyer said. "Our question was 'When were these genes exerting their effect?' Now we know it's much earlier than previously thought, perhaps before birth."
Research such as this would benefit from the Brain Activity Map under development through the National Institutes of Health. The project's 10-year goal is to create a map of the brain's nearly 30,000 genes as well as the circuitry system that transmits information via brain waves.