Prenatal Marker of Early Brain Development
William Fifer of Columbia University in the U.S. is developing a non-invasive method to measure heart rate and heart rate variability in the fetus during pregnancy as a window into brain function to help warn of emerging brain abnormalities. They aim to produce charts of brain development beginning during pregnancy and continuing into early childhood that can be used in limited-resource settings for monitoring child health. In Phase I, they analyzed heart rate data from fetuses obtained during different sleep states from 356 pregnant mothers in South Africa, and found that it correlated with their brain activity measured around four days after birth. In Phase II, they will extend the analysis to infants between 24 and 36 months to determine whether the heart rate patterns measured in utero and the brain activity measured soon after birth are also related to various aspects of neurodevelopment including growth, cognition, and language in toddlers. They will also study a new cohort of 50 pregnant mothers to optimize the heart rate and brain activity measurements to help identify the best markers of abnormal brain development that can be used in low-resource settings for timely interventions.