School of Medicine

Brain imaging of babies with Down syndrome focus of $11.5 million grant

Kelly N. Botteron, MD, professor of psychiatry and of radiology at the School of Medicine, is leading a multicenter brain-imaging study focused on infants with Down syndrome. The five year $11.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will focus on brain development in babies with the genetic syndrome. (Photo: Matt Miller/School of Medicine)

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have received a five-year, $11.5 million grant to lead a multicenter effort to understand how brain development in babies with Down syndrome differs from that in other babies. The effort, which involves scanning the babies’ brains using MRI, will provide a foundation that may lead to therapies to counter developmental delays in children with the condition.

The grant, from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is part of a $77 million initiative that began in 2018 to bolster basic and clinical research focused on infants and children with Down syndrome. Most people with the genetic condition have mild to severe developmental delays, learning disabilities, and distinct facial and physical features. Some also experience heart and gastrointestinal disorders.

Each year, about 6,000 babies in the U.S. are born with the condition.

“It is astounding how sparse the research is involving neuroimaging characterization of neurodevelopment in Down syndrome, especially given that the condition is rather common,” said the study’s lead investigator, Kelly N. Botteron, MD, professor of psychiatry and of radiology. “Brain-imaging studies in children with Down syndrome are almost nonexistent. Before we can develop and assess therapies to improve cognitive outcomes, we need to understand more about the alterations in early brain development in these children.”

Researchers will conduct behavioral and developmental testing, as well as MRI brain imaging, to examine the brain structure and cognitive function of 140 infants with Down syndrome and 70 babies without the condition. The children will be studied when they are 6 months old and, again, when they are 1 year old and then 2 years old.

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