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Machines Like Us

Pig brain models provide insights into human cognitive development

Thursday, 14 March 2013

A mutual curiosity about patterns of growth and development in pig brains has brought two University of Illinois research groups together. Animal scientists Rod Johnson and Ryan Dilger have developed a model of the pig brain that they plan to use to answer important questions about human brain development.

"It is important to characterize the normal brain growth trajectory from the neonatal period to sexual maturity," said Johnson.

"Until we know how the brain grows, we don't know what is going to change," added Dilger.

In cooperation with the Beckman Institute, they performed MRI scans on the brains of 16 piglets, starting at the age of 2 weeks, then at 4 weeks, and then at 4-week intervals up to 24 weeks.

"We have world-class people at the Beckman Institute who are pushing and developing the next generation of neuroimaging technology, so we're able to connect with them and take advantage of their expertise," said Johnson.

Matt Conrad, a student in Johnson's lab, used three-dimensional visualization software on over 200 images to manually segment each region on three planes. The software put the information together into a three-dimensional image of the pig brain. This is used to determine the volume of the different structures.

When the piglets were at Beckman for their imaging sessions, Dilger performed other tests, including diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which shows how neural tracks develop, allowing the exploration of brain complexity and of how neurons form. It was also possible to measure neurochemicals, including creatine and acetylcholine, in the brain, which provides a unique insight into brain metabolism.