Newborn Health: fMRI Study

Measuring disruption to brain function using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in infants from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), with the aim of predicting the attentional, behavioural, and cognitive impairments that can emerge in childhood.

MRI has become a critical tool for neonatology, as a way to characterise injury to brain structures. However, even when MRI is combined with other available tools, for many infants from the NICU it remains difficult to answer one of the most pressing questions, which is whether an infant will develop attentional, behavioural or cognitive impairments later in life. The standard-of-care, therefore, is often to “wait-and-see” what impairments emerge during development, but this precludes early intervention.

At present, a barrier to earlier diagnosis is that the infant brain exhibits considerable plasticity, and so that even when injury to brain structures is present, brain function can develop normally. We propose, therefore, that it is critical not just to measure brain structure, but to also measure brain function. A powerful tool with which to do this is functional MRI (fMRI), which has potential to provide powerful insight into atypical development.

Disruption to early development by extremely preterm birth or hypoxia creates a considerable risk of intellectual disability. These perinatal neurological conditions account for a substantial proportion of the total burden of human disease4, emphasising the societal need for new diagnostic tools and intervention strategies to reduce lifelong intellectual disability. After being overlooked in classic works, there is growing evidence that developmental processes during childhood are critical in shaping complex cognition6. Development is more protracted in more intelligent species and the genes that are primarily associated with individual differences in intelligence are those that control the brain development.

Despite its importance, the neurodevelopment of the complex cognitive functions that underlie intellectual functioning is poorly understood. This is because the behavioural capabilities of young infants are limited, and they cannot perform the tasks used to measure complex cognition in children and adults (e.g., reasoning or working memory for multiple items). Critically, it is not at all clear how these tasks should be adapted for the infant mind. What are the precursors of complex cognition? And how can they be measured, at a young age when language and motor control are primitive or absent?


Given the difficulty of measuring the early development of complex cognition with behaviour in infants, we propose a novel method, of neuroimaging with fMRI, which can measure the disruption to the key brain networks and link this, through longitudinal analysis, to future intellectual disability. We have found the connectivity of the brain network most strongly associated with complex cognition in adulthood, the frontoparietal network (FPN), is in a number ways surprisingly mature in early infancy. This converges with recent evidence of early frontal function and suggests that measuring the FPN in early infancy may provide an early marker for intelligence. Furthermore, we recently found in a diverse cohort of NICU patients that if the FPN is disrupted by perinatal brain injury then the development of motor skills is impacted by 4-8 months implying that the FPN is not just anatomically mature, but is functioning even in the first months. This suggests that complex cognitive functions or their precursors in the FPN are present from birth or earlier.

We will use neuroimaging to measure the FPN in a cohort from the NICU, scanning longitudinally from 2-12 months corrected age. We will measure the consequences of individual differences in the FPN on the subsequent cognitive development. Finally, we will study the internal and external factors that influence the development of the FPN. These insights and the methodologies we will develop, will provide solutions to pressing needs in clinical diagnosis and intervention.


NICU comfort holding

How To Apply

Candidates applying for this studentship must have a first or second class degree or Masters in a relevant discipline. Previous experience in a health-related discipline is expected and relevant experience is welcomed.

A stipend of 18,500 euro per annum and a cover for registration fees will be available for the successful applicant (non-EU members may apply but additional fees are paid by the candidate).  The position is funded for 4 years with an allowance for travel and publication costs. 

The successful applicant will be asked to proceed through the Postgraduate Applications Centre (PAC, for formal registration.

Interested candidates should submit:

  1. a covering letter detailing their interest and reasons for applying for this position 
  2. (a CV (including the name and contact details of 2 referees)
  3. a summary of their relevant research experience to date


The above documents should be emailed to on or before the closing date of 11 July.

Please reference ‘PhD Studentship fMRI Study’ on the subject line of your application.

The successful applicant is expected to commence the post by 1 October 2018. 


Further Enquiries: please contact Prof Rhodri Cusack




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