A team of researchers has recently identified a source of spontaneous, high-amplitude bursts of activity in the brains of pre-mature babies, which are vital for healthy development.
The study suggested that the spontaneous brain activity is essential to strengthen brain connections, which will serve as 'scaffolding' that will then develop further with life experience.
The findings suggested that a specific brain region called the insula plays a major role in the generation of the spontaneous neuronal bursts.
Other studies have found that newborns whose brains do not display this activity are more likely to develop cerebral palsy or have poor cognitive skills later in life.
"While we don't yet know what causes these neuronal bursts, we know that in healthy babies, they are present preterm and disappear at full term. It's a bad sign if they are absent in preterm or present still after full term," said one of the lead authors Dr Lorenzo Fabrizi from the University College London.
Fabrizi added that the brain of a preterm baby is not merely a downsized version of that of an adult, but is uniquely designed to prepare itself for the external world.
The team identified the source of the most common type of bursts, called delta brush events, in 10 healthy preterm babies aged 32-36 postmenstrual weeks using a simultaneous combination of two techniques: an electroencephalogram (EEG) to identify the signal and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map its location.
The EEG does not give precise spatial information, so they matched the timings of the neuronal activity with fMRI readings, which provide better spatial data by measuring blood flow throughout the brain.
The findings indicated that the bursts came from the insula, which is one of the most densely connected hubs in the developing cortex.
The study findings correspond with previous evidence that the insula enters a crucial phase of development during the late-term period studied.
The research appears in journal of eLife.