Radiologists who can tune in to the nuances of brain scans in children are a pretty rarified group. Only about 3 percent of U.S. radiologists, some 800 to 900 physicians, practice in pediatrics. Those specifically trained in pediatric neuroradiology are even scarcer.
To a less trained eye, normal developmental changes in a child’s brain may be misinterpreted as abnormal on MRI. Conversely, a complex brain disorder can sometimes appear normal. That’s especially true when the abnormality affects both sides of the brain equally (see sidebar).
It can be hard to find the cause of a child’s developmental delay without a proper read. “Pediatric brain scans of children under age 4 can be particularly tricky to read because the brain is rapidly developing during this period,” says Sanjay Prabhu, MBBS, a pediatric neuroradiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. “If you’re looking at adult scans all the time, it’s incredibly difficult to transition to pediatric scans and understand what is considered ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal.’ Clinicians often wonder, ‘Should I repeat the scan? Should I send the patient to a specialist?’” …
Surprisingly little is known about the brains of babies under age 2 — because of the challenges of safely imaging children so young. Head-circumference measures at the pediatrician’s office tell very little about what’s going on inside. But there’s much to know, because rapidly developing brains are vulnerable to injury.
Here, Ellen Grant, a neuroradiologist trained in theoretical physics, describes how advanced imaging techniques and computational science are providing a better understanding of the newborn and even fetal brain. With these tools, neurologists can watch the brain as it forms and folds, track the growth of individual brain structures, and detect problems in brain organization before anything can be noticed by parents or physicians — then correlate these measurements with child developmental measures.
Children’s Hospital Boston is building a neuroimaging facility with specially designed, baby-sized equipment — the only one in the world to be situated near a neonatal and pediatric intensive care unit. It will help answer questions like: What prenatal brain development is missed when a baby is born even two weeks shy of its due date? What does a brain structure growing out of synch at 6 months mean for language development in preschool? Are interventions for brain injury, such as hypothermia, effective? Grant’s ultimate goal is to get advanced neuroimaging into routine clinical care, to monitor infants and newborns with brain injury, predict their future course, and evaluate new treatments.