UCL-led team receives Gates Foundation funding for infant brain imaging in the developing world

The interdisciplinary researchers will investigate crucial points where malnutrition affects infant brain development, following Grand Challenges Exploration funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.


The multi-institute team, led by Professor Clare Elwell (UCL Medical Physics), a CDT supervisor, demonstrated the first functional brain imaging of Africa infants in a Phase I study in 2014  They have now received Phase II funding to extend this into the next stage, a three year-long-study tracking the development of individual children and searching for key markers that would indicate atypical brain development. The team hope that with their non-invasive, light based technology, they can identify a problem before damage has occurred and guide intervention.

The first 24 months of life are crucial for brain development, but studying such young subjects presents many challenges. The portable, safe system developed at UCL Engineering uses a technique called fNIRS (functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy) to build a picture of the brain activity of infants. It has already been used to study infants at risk of autism in the UK, as well as in the field in the Gambia and Bangladesh. This project will compare brain development from birth between groups of infants growing up in rural Gambia and those growing up in the UK, providing information about the effects of malnutrition and other risk factors and where best to target assistance.

A key challenge for the UCL Engineers developing the technology was to make it comfortable for the child, and small enough so that a carer can hold the infant as he or she participates in the tests. They produced a headband which emits and detects near infrared light. This light travels harmlessly through the skin and skull, but is reflected differently depending on the brain activity and therefore use of oxygen in that area. During the study, children wear the headband and watch videos, for example of adults playing ‘peekaboo’ or reciting nursery rhymes. As different parts of their brain become active, the colour of the light reflected from the brain changes. These effects are analysed and a map of the child’s brain activity is produced. The portability and ruggedness of the system enables it to be used in field situations.

Professor Clare Elwell said:

“Extending this work to a long-term study gives us a unique chance to understanding how infants are affected by growing up in extreme poverty and to guide interventions to give these children the best chance of healthy and productive lives. We are very grateful to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation for their continued investment in this project which is a great example of UCL Engineering delivering solutions for global health projects.”

The multidisciplinary team contains experts in nutrition, developmental science, fieldwork and  statistics as well as brain imaging. The partners are:

  • Biomedical Optics Research Laboratory, University College London (UCL)
  • Centre for Brain and Cognitive DevelopmentBirkbeck, University of London
  • MRC International Nutrition Group, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and MRC Unit, The Gambia
  • MRC Human Nutrition Research Cambridge
  • neoLAB, Evelyn Perinatal Imaging Centre, Cambridge Hospital
  • UCL Institute of Child Health

More information on the project can be found at www.globalfnirs.org and @globalfnirs