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Title: Task-based fMRI investigation of the newborn brain : sensorimotor development and learning
Author: Dall'Orso, Sofia
ISNI:       0000 0004 9350 2594
Awarding Body: Imperial College London
Current Institution: Imperial College London
Date of Award: 2020
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Human brain development relies upon the interaction between genetic and environmental factors, and the latter plays a critical role during the perinatal period. In this period, neuronal plasticity through experience-dependent activity is enhanced in the sensory systems, and drive the maturation of the brain. While plasticity is essential for maturation, it is also a source of vulnerability as altered early experiences may interact with the normal course of development. This is particularly evident in infants born preterm, who are prematurely exposed to a sensory-rich environment, and at risk or neurodevelopmental disorders. In keeping with the somatosensory system being at a critical period for development during late gestation, sensorimotor disorders, such as cerebral palsy, are more common in preterm compared with full-term born infants. It is therefore important to understand the normal trajectory of sensorimotor development and how this may be moulded by early sensory experiences. It is well acknowledged that the sensorimotor cortex is topographically organised so that different body parts map to a specific location within the cortex and this map is generally referred to as the ''homunculus". Although the somatotopy has been well characterised in the mature brain, it remains unknown when this organisation emerges during development. Animal studies hints that functional cortical maps might emerge across the equivalent period to the third trimester of human gestation, nevertheless there is currently no evidence. Therefore, I first investigated the topography of the preterm somatosensory cortex in a group of newborn infants. In this purpose I used fMRI and automated robotic tools and measured the functional responses to different sensory simulations (delivered to the mouth, wrists and ankles). The results provide evidence that it is possible to identify distinct areas in the somatosensory cortex devoted to different body parts even in the preterm brain supporting the presence of an immature 'homunculus'. Next, I wanted to investigate how activity and development in the sensorimotor system are influenced by experience. Experience-dependent plasticity is the basis of learning (e.g. adaptive behaviour), which is observed in newborn infants. Associative learning in particular has been widely investigated in infants, however, the underlining neuronal processes have previously been poorly understood. To study the neural correlates of associative learning in newborn infants, I developed and used a classical conditioning paradigm in combination with robot-assisted fMRI. The results confirm that associative learning can occur even at this early stage of life and with non-aversive stimuli. More importantly, I could observe learning-induced changes in brain activity within the primary sensory cortices, suggesting that such experience can shape cortical circuitry and is likely to influence early brain development.
Supervisor: Burdet, Etienne ; Arichi, Tomoki ; Edwards, Anthony David Sponsor: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral