Earthquakes - an unexpected help in interpreting the brain activity of premature babies

25.5.2015
A new research method allows computers to calculate the brain functions of very premature babies during their first hours of life. "Brainstorm barometer" is based on the hypothesis that the brainstorms generated by the billions of neurons inside a baby's head are governed by the same rules as other massive natural phenomena.

Researchers have found that certain episodes, brainstorms of a kind, occur in the brains of very premature babies and are critical for the maturation of the baby’s brain.

University of Helsinki researchers have partnered with Swedish and Australian researchers to create a ”brainstorm barometer”, which allows computers to calculate the brain functions of very premature babies during their first hours of life.

– The new method is based on the hypothesis that the brainstorms generated by the billions of neurons inside a baby's head are governed by the same rules as other massive natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, forest fires or snow avalanches, tells Dr. Sampsa Vanhatalo who leads the University of Helsinki’s Baby Brain Activity (BABA) research group.

The biggest risks in the development of a very premature baby are concentrated on the first days of life, when intensive care seeks to find the care balance suitable for each individual child. At this stage it would be vitally important to be able to track the child’s brain function and to identify the babies whose brains are at particular risk.

– The brain function of very premature babies is completely different from that of older children or adults, meaning that the currently used methods of EEG interpretation are poorly suited for them, Vanhatalo explains.  

The laws of nature hold true in the brain

Professor Michael Breakspear’s computational neuroscience research group in Australia began to develop mathematical methods used in geology and basic physics research after it was found that the brainstorms in very premature babies were astonishingly similar to the “crackling noise” that occurs on small scales in weakly magnetised metals and large-scales during earthquakes.

– Of greatest clinical interest was the observation that the results from this barometer correlated significantly with the child's cognitive development at age two, Vanhatalo tells. 

The EEG instrument created in the study is a collection of sophisticated mathematical functions, combined ingeniously to create a software component for analysing the EEG signal. This component can be added to the software of existing brain monitors.

– This method is the first source of objective data on the messages the brain of a very premature baby may be sending to the doctors taking care of the child during the first hours of life, Vanhatalo describes.

– In terms of technology, the adoption of the method is no more difficult than downloading new apps onto our smartphones. The interest of EEG monitor manufacturers to engage in product development will be the bottleneck. Luckily the market is very competitive, Vanhatalo points out.

The patient material for the research came from Dr. Lena Hellström-Westas, Uppsala University.

The new research method has been published in Brain.