Tübingen, 26.02.2024

New Insights into Human Brain Development

Researchers Identify Sex-Specific Differences

The development of the human brain is a key factor in mental health. Already in the early stages of life, the way in which the brain receives and processes signals and information changes significantly at different stages of development. Impaired development can have lasting consequences and lead to mental disorders. Together with international research partners, researchers at the University Hospital Tübingen have gained some enlightening insights: The neural complexity of brain activity changes differently than expected between the late stage of pregnancy and early childhood and, moreover, with sex-specific differences. These findings have now been published in the prestigious journal ‘Nature Mental Health’.

In the study, the team examined how the human brain responds to external stimuli, such as auditory sequences, both before and after birth. The brain’s responses could be measured using fetal magnetoencephalography (fMEG), a non-invasive technique to measure brain activity in the womb from the surface of the mother’s abdomen. The sensors are arranged in a concave array that is shaped to perfectly fit the maternal abdomen. “Sensory stimulation provides us with a unique opportunity to observe how young brains process information from the outside. And all in a completely safe way,” explains DZD scientist Prof. Dr. Hubert Preissl from the fMEG Center at the University of Tübingen and the Institute for Diabetes Research and Metabolic Diseases of Helmholtz Munich.

Detecting and Treating Diseases Early On
The researchers had the following hypothesis: The more the brain develops, the more complex neural responses to external stimuli become. Surprisingly, the results show that the complexity of neural responses declines and, furthermore, at different rates depending on sex. These differences could shed light on why particular developmental disorders occur with differing frequency in boys and girls. “Initially, I was quite surprised,” admits Dr. Joel Frohlich from the Institute for Neuromodulation and Neurotechnology. “Intuitively, I had thought that as the brain matures, its activity should grow more complex.” However, it seems to make sense that maturing connections in the brain respond to external stimuli with structured patterns. A more developed brain is more ordered and therefore has fewer possibilities to respond to the same stimulus in a different way.

The research team from Tübingen plans to conduct further research into the relationship between the observed brain patterns and long-term mental health. “The earlier we identify the risk for the development of neuropsychiatric and metabolic disorders, the more effectively we can support brain development to prevent serious disease progression,” explains Prof. Dr. Alireza Gharabaghi from the Institute for Neuromodulation and Neurotechnology. 

These findings could pave the way for future preventive measures and treatment strategies, which the research team is also exploring at the Center for Bionic Intelligence and the German Center for Mental Health. The lead researchers in the study were Dr. Joel Frohlich, Dr. Julia Moser, Dr. Katrin Sippel, Dr. Pedro Mediano, Prof. Dr. Hubert Preissl, and Prof. Dr. Alireza Gharabaghi from the Institute for Neuromodulation and Neurotechnology at the University Hospital Tübingen.

Background: Neurotechnology for Better Treatments of Brain Diseases
The Institute for Neuromodulation and Neurotechnology at the University Hospital Tübingen was established in 2020 with the objective of using innovative methods to help patients. Around 25 physicians, neuroscientists, engineers, and computer scientists work together so that patients can benefit from the latest neurotechnological developments. The main focus is on neuromodulation. The aim is to have a positive impact on brain functions by means of brain pacemakers and neuroprostheses, magnetic or electrical stimulation, or even neurorobotics and ortheses, which help to improve rehabilitation after brain damage.

Original publication:                                                                                           
Frohlich J, Moser J, Sippel K, Mediano P, Preissl H & Gharabaghi A. Sex differences in prenatal development of neural complexity in the human brain. DOI: 10.1038/s44220-024-00206-4

Scientific Contact:
Prof. Dr. Hubert Preißl
Institute for Diabetes Research and Metabolic Diseases
of Helmholtz Munich at the Eberhard-Karls-University Tuebingen
Otfried-Müller-Str. 10
72076 Tübingen
E-Mail: hubert.preissl(at)med.uni-tuebingen.de

Helmholtz Munich is a top biomedical research centre. Its mission is to develop breakthrough solutions for a healthier society in a rapidly changing world. Interdisciplinary research teams focus on environment-related diseases, especially the therapy and prevention of diabetes, obesity, allergies and chronic lung diseases. Using artificial intelligence and bioengineering, the researchers transfer their findings to patients more quickly. Helmholtz Munich has more than 2,500 employees and is based in Munich/Neuherberg. It is a member of the Helmholtz Association, the largest scientific organisation in Germany with more than 43,000 employees and 18 research centres. More about Helmholtz Munich (Helmholtz Zentrum München German Research Center for Environmental Health): www.helmholtz-munich.de

Founded in 1805, the University Hospital Tübingen is one of the leading centres of German university medicine. As one of the 33 university hospitals in Germany, it contributes to the successful combination of high-performance medicine, research and teaching. Well over 400,000 inpatients and outpatients from all over the world benefit from this combination of science and practice every year. The clinics, institutes and centres unite all specialists under one roof. The experts work together across disciplines and offer each patient the best possible treatment based on the latest research findings. The University Hospital Tübingen conducts research for better diagnoses, therapies and healing chances; many new treatment methods are clinically tested and applied here. In addition to diabetology, neurosciences, oncology, immunology, infection research and vascular medicine are research priorities in Tübingen. The Chair of Diabetology /Endocrinology has been the centre of interdisciplinary research over the last 25 years, especially with the participation of surgery, radiology and laboratory medicine. The University Hospital is a reliable partner in four of the six German Centres for Health Research initiated by the Federal Government. www.medizin.uni-tuebingen.de

The German Center for Diabetes Research (DZD) is a national association that brings together experts in the field of diabetes research and combines basic research, translational research, epidemiology and clinical applications. The aim is to develop novel strategies for personalized prevention and treatment of diabetes. Members are Helmholtz Munich – German Research Center for Environmental Health, the German Diabetes Center in Düsseldorf, the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam-Rehbrücke, the Paul Langerhans Institute Dresden of Helmholtz Munich at the University Medical Center Carl Gustav Carus of the TU Dresden and the Institute for Diabetes Research and Metabolic Diseases of Helmholtz Munich at the Eberhard-Karls-University of Tuebingen together with associated partners at the Universities in Heidelberg, Cologne, Leipzig, Lübeck and Munich. www.dzd-ev.de/en  

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Birgit Niesing

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