Home Health From X-rays to foetal brains: King’s and imaging

From X-rays to foetal brains: King’s and imaging

2 October 2017
From X-rays to foetal brains: King’s and imaging

A century after celebrating the 1917 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to King’s first Nobel Prizewinner Charles Barkla, for his work on X-rays, the university continues its tradition of developing ground-breaking imaging techniques, including scans to reduce the number of babies who suffer brain damage at the earliest stages of life.

Charles Glover Barkla, who was Wheatstone Professor of Physics at King’s from 1909 to 1913, was actually nominated for his prize in 1918, after the Prize had been reserved for a year because of the effects of the First World War. Born in Widnes in 1877, Barkla was also well-known for his fine baritone voice.

Following the discovery of X-rays in 1895 by Wilhelm Röntgen (who received the first-ever Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1901), Barkla investigated the scattering of X-rays by different substances, showing that the diffuse radiation contained another part which depended only on the type of chemical elements present, not on their chemical combination or the physical state of the substance. This discovery proved to be one of the most important steps in the investigation of atomic structure, and was confirmed a few years later by the development of X-ray spectroscopy.

This technique formed a crucial element in the pioneering early-1950s contribution of King’s scientists Dr Rosalind Franklin and Professor Maurice Wilkins to the discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule.  Maurice Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for Physics for this work in 1963, and, in all, out of King’s 12 Nobels, five have been awarded in physics.

King’s has continued to be at the forefront of imaging research and scans. The Centre for the Developing Brain undertakes ground-breaking research to understand human brain development, with the aim of reducing the number of babies who suffer brain damage at the earliest stages of life.

Recent work by the Centre found for the first time a gene related to brain damage in pre-term infants which could open doors for research into more effective treatments of diseases such as cerebral palsy, autism and learning difficulties.

The gene, known as DLG4, is found in different forms in all humans but previously was thought only to play a role in the function of the nervous system.

Researchers have also identified the source of spontaneous, high-amplitude bursts of activity seen in the brains of preterm babies, which are vital for healthy development. This activity is essential to strengthen brain connections which will serve as ‘scaffolding’ that will then develop further with life experience.

Using a pioneering technique, they found a specific brain region called the insula that plays a major role in the generation of the spontaneous neuronal bursts. Infants whose brains don’t display this activity are more likely to develop cerebral palsy or have poor cognitive skills later in life.

The Centre has also published ground-breaking scans of newborn babies’ brains which researchers from all over the world can download and use to study how the human brain develops. The images are part of the Developing Human Connectome Project (dHCP).

Find out more about the Centre for the Developing Brain on the website.

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