On The Medical Horizon: Mapping the Brain In Utero

Brain imaging before birth could enable early diagnoses of conditions including autism and developmental disabilities.

This story appears in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Imagine if autism could be diagnosed before a baby is born. Rather than finding out around the child’s third birthday, when developmental issues usually become noticeable, parents would get a head start on grasping the condition—and doctors would have an opportunity to strategize care in advance.

Diagnosis in utero is on the far horizon, says pediatric neuroscientist Moriah Thomason, whose research aims to solve some of the mysteries of the fetal brain. At Detroit’s Wayne State University, she and her team use MRI technology to check the growth of a fetus’s brain and map the neural connectivity within it, creating a groundbreaking snapshot of how well the organ is functioning.

They focus on cases where there’s danger of premature birth, Thomason says, because “we know that preterm children are at higher risk for developmental delays.” Such delays are often blamed on stress or lack of oxygen during birth. Thomason’s work suggests impairment may start in the womb, possibly with an undetected infection.

A clearer understanding will take time. The field moves rapidly, though, says Thomason. After all, it’s only in the past few decades that prenatal ultrasounds have become routine.


See pediatric neuroscientist Moriah Thomason's MRI technology in action.