Virtual laboratory helps understand infant brain health

Magnetic resonance images (MRIs) depicting the brain structure of an premature infant brain.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that conducts brain characterisation can investigate the effects of drugs and medical therapies on brain structure of premature infants with diseases.

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Cutting-edge cloud technology provides researchers and doctors with more confidence to safely use drug therapies on premature babies.

Unfortunately, many pre-term infants are likely to suffer from a range of health issues and side effects from medication administered in their early days.

Dr Nathanael Yates is completing his postdoctoral research fellowship in the Asia-Pacific Centre for Neuromodulation at the Queensland Brain Institute and is an honorary research fellow at the University of Western Australia, School of Human Sciences.

Using high-tech MRI software Dr Yates is investigating the safe use of medical therapies used for premature infants to identify any possible adverse side effects that these drugs could have on brain structure.

The development of preterm infant brain structure may not be as developed compared to that of an adult brain. Traditional methods to analyse MRIs are suited to adult brain, but they perform poorly on immature brains. Trying to determine the difference between white matter (connections to the brain) and the grey matter (the cells of the brain) aren’t as distinct between adult and infant brain scans.

Thanks to co-funding from The Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC), Dr Yates and his collaborators have developed a unique method to better analyse these brain cells via the Characterisation Virtual Laboratory (CVL) tool, a free cloud based virtual desktop which interprets complex images into accessible information, providing researchers with fast and precise information about the safety of the medications in real time.

“By using the CVL tools we can provide much more accurate and clearer information on the preterm brain that one day could be used in clinical research. You receive instant visual feedback, an expert analyst can train the software to get the results you are after. This tool allows for cross collaboration with other scientists and can be accessed anywhere” stated Dr Yates.

The Characterisation Virtual Laboratory (CVL) is a ARDC co-investment project that is housed on the ARDC Nectar Research Cloud and includes a range of data and analysis workflows associated with general imaging, neuroimaging, light microscopy amongst others.

Many researchers are unaware of the CVL software and Dr Yates would like further awareness “It’s important for any researcher in Australia to have access to high quality resources. It democratises research and means researchers aren’t dependent on grant funding. This system is available to all researchers, including PhD students.”

This work was assisted by the National Imaging Facility (NIF), and the government funded National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) project, at the University of Western Australia Node.

The ARDC is an NCRIS project that enables Australian researchers to better access and use data. ARDC provide and support data, research analysis platforms, data expertise, and digital data skills and training.

Australia is an established global leader in world-class research. The Australian Government helps maintain this reputation by ensuring researchers have access to cutting edge national research infrastructure supported through the NCRIS program.

This article was published as part of National Science Week 2021.

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