Researchers have uncovered a previously unknown stage of brain development in newborn babies that could answer questions about human cognition and lead to new insights about neurological diseases such as autism and schizophrenia. Ben Gruber reports.
STORY: Baby Grace is just 16 days old. She eats, sleeps, and passes a lot of gas. Until now, it was thought that most of her brain circuitry developed before birth. But new research suggests it's still very much work in progress - and will be for months. Scientists have found a previously unknown stage of development where tiny neurons believed to form deep in the brain migrate to the prefrontal cortex, which plays a pivotal role in cognition and personality. SOUNDBITE (English) ERIC J. HUANG, PROFESSOR OF PATHOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN FRANCISCO, SAYING: "We were fascinated with finding this large number of newborn neurons that are actively migrating away from the sub-ventricle zone into the subcorticle white matter and so it is really an exciting period of discovery for us." ...Exciting because this migration could lead to new insights into Grace's brain's ability to learn and change. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ARTURO ALVAREZ-BUYLLA, PROFESSOR OF NEUROLOGICAL SURGERY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN FRANCISCO, SAYING: "So it is just a fascinating phenomena when it happens in the embryo and its happening in a much more complex brain that is bigger and much more complex. That fact that these cells can make these long long migrations, journeys from site where they are probably born to their ultimate locations where they are going to become integrated into circuits." These circuits in the prefrontal cortex are thought to be implicated in neurological disorders like autism and schizophrenia - posing more questions on this vital stage of brain development. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ARTURO ALVAREZ-BUYLLA, PROFESSOR OF NEUROLOGICAL SURGERY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN FRANCISCO, SAYING: "We have learned tremendously about brain development but it's still a very very small fraction of what we need to know to really understand how the brain functions and gets assembled. So it's fascinating that we are making progress so fast but we have a long way to go." As for baby Grace, everyday is a new adventure. For her, life is pretty simple, a big contrast to the complexities taking shape inside her head.