Babies are born with an important collection of fully formed brain networks, including one linked to introspection, a new study shows.
The findings challenge previous ideas about early-stage brain development and activity.
Scientists at the MRC Clinical Sciences Center at Imperial College London used functional MRI to examine the brains of 70 babies born at between 29 and 43 weeks. The scans showed that full-term babies have adult-equivalent resting state networks. These are connected systems of neurons that are always active, even when a person is not focusing on a particular task or is asleep.
One fully formed resting state network identified in babies is called the default mode network, which is believed to be involved in introspection and daydreaming. Previous research had indicated this network was incomplete at birth and developed during early childhood.
Being a foetus is fun
"Some researchers have said that the default mode network is responsible for introspection - retrieving autobiographical memories and envisioning the future, etc. The fact that we found it in newborn babies suggests that either being a foetus is a lot more fun than any of us can remember - lying there happily introspecting and thinking about the future - or that this theory is mistaken," lead author David Edwards said.
"Our study shows that babies' brains are more fully formed than we thought. More generally, we sometimes expect to be able to explain the activity we can see on brain scans in terms of someone thinking or doing some task. However, most of the brain is probably engaged in activities of which we are completely unaware, and it is this complex background activity that we are detecting," Edwards said.
The findings were released in advance of publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.