A new online tool developed by researchers at the University of Illinois will further aid studies into postnatal brain growth in human infants based on the similarities seen in the development of the piglet brain, University of Illinois professor of animal sciences Rod Johnson said.
Through a cooperative effort between researchers in animal sciences, bioengineering and the university's Beckman Institute, Johnson and colleagues Ryan Dilger and Brad Sutton have developed a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-based brain atlas for the four-week old piglet that offers a three-dimensional averaged brain and anatomical regions of interest.
This averaged brain atlas, created from images from multiple piglets, will serve as a template for future studies using advanced MRI techniques that can provide important information on brain macro- and microstructure during this critical period of development. The template, as well as tissue probability maps that were also created, are available online and are freely distributed.
"The piglet brain is similar to the human brain in that it is gyrencephalic and experiences massive growth and development in the late prenatal and early postnatal periods. We are concerned that environmental insults such as infection or poor nutrition during these early periods may alter the trajectory of brain development," Johnson said.
While an atlas did already exist for the adult pig, Matthew Conrad, a doctoral student in Johnson's lab, said the previous atlas was created from a single adult animal. "The benefit to using an averaged brain is that it will produce a template that is a better representation of the population. The more animals included the better."
The atlas was created by taking MRI images of the brains of 15 four-week-old York breed piglets — nine females and six males. The images were then reconstructed into 3D volumes for each pig. Through a series of deformations and averaging of the data sets, the images were eventually aligned to create the final averaged brain.
Conrad explained that having an averaged brain template available will allow better use of the software needed for more advanced techniques in studying the volume of brain regions.
Conrad added that the piglet brain is now being recognized for its potential as a translational animal model for neurodevelopmental studies.
“Much of the research on the effects of pre- and postnatal factors on brain development has been done in rodent models, but the rodent brain develops very differently. Therefore, the piglet can provide a complementary model wherein results better translate to humans,” Johnson said.
The brain atlas project and related studies are funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The atlas and other resources created during this project are available online at http://pigmri.illinois.edu.
“An in vivo three-dimensional magnetic resonance imaging-based averaged brain collection of the neonatal piglet (Sus scrofa)” was recently published in PLOS ONE and is available online at http://www.plosone.org/article/fetchObject.action?uri=info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0107650&representation=PDF. Matthew S. Conrad, Bradley P. Sutton, Ryan N. Dilger, and Rodney W. Johnson were coauthors of the study.