Everyone knows the old nursery rhyme. “This little piggy went to market; this little piggy stayed home …”
Now researchers at the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences could add to the rhyme: “And this little piggy could help humans understand the infant brain.”
At the center of this breakthrough is a new online tool that could aid studies into postnatal brain growth in human infants based on the similarities seen in the development of the piglet brain, according to Rod Johnson, a University of Illinois professor of animal sciences.
Through a cooperative effort between researchers in animal sciences, bioengineering, and the university’s Beckman Institute, Johnson, the project leader, together with 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.
The 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 a critical period of development.
“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.
As it turns out, piglet brain development offers great facsimiles of human brain development.
“Pigs provide an excellent translational model for biomedical research. This is a new tool that may be useful to others in the biomedical community,” Johnson explained.
The study, “An In Vivo Three-Dimensional Magnetic Resonance Imaging-Based Averaged Brain Collection of the Neonatal Piglet (Sus scrofa),” produced an atlas by dint of MRI images of the brains of 15 four-week-old York breed piglets. It was recently published in Plos One.
Previous studies using MRI imaging of piglets have looked at the effects of iron deficiency on brain development.
“For that we did MRI imaging and manual segmentation, and with manual segmentation you are looking at volume changes within very large areas of the brain, but with VBM we can pinpoint smaller changes within discrete brain areas,” Conrad said. “We are now reanalyzing data from those piglets and replicating this study with new protocols, which will allow us to see changes that we didn’t see before.”
Another study is looking at the effects of postnatal infections, such as pneumonia, on brain development. “These types of infections are common in infants, and again it’s a period of time when the brain is undergoing rapid development,” Johnson said.
A third study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is focused on maternal viral infection during pregnancy.
“The goal is to assess how mom’s immune response to infection influences brain development and future behavior of her piglets,” Johnson said.
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 explained.
It’s fascinating research that could rapidly accelerate learning about optimal development conditions for the young human brain.
And let us hope that all the piggies got roast beef for their help.
Journal citation: Conrad MS, Sutton BP, Dilger RN, Johnson RW (2014) An In Vivo Three-Dimensional Magnetic Resonance Imaging-Based Averaged Brain Collection of the Neonatal Piglet (Sus scrofa). PLoS ONE 9(9): e107650. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0107650