NRL News

Mapping the unborn baby’s brain and the moral topography of the human heart

by | Apr 3, 2014


By Dave Andrusko

Images of the developing fetal brain show connections among brain regions. Allen Institute for Brain Science

Images of the developing fetal brain show connections among brain regions.
Allen Institute for Brain Science

There I was peacefully driving my way into work, switching channels every five minutes as is my habit. I turned on NPR and caught a piece narrated by Jon Hamilton on NPR’s website which was called “Map of the Developing Human Brain Shows Where Problems Begin.”

Before reporter Jon Hamilton narrates his 4-minute-long piece, we are told “The human brain is often called the most complex object in the universe. Yet its basic architecture is created in just nine months, during pregnancy. Now scientists have taken a big step toward understanding how this is happens. They’ve created a highly detailed map of the developing brain.”

Hamilton begins with this awe-inspiring fact:

“During pregnancy the human brain grows from a single cell to more than 80 billion cells. And Ed Lein, of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, says before we’re born these cells have to get organized in a way that will eventually let us think and feel and remember.”

“We’re talking about a remarkable process where we build a brain,” Lein, tells Hamilton, a process that is “controlled by our genes.”

Great! I love stories that teach us the continuity of human life, beginning in the beginning, and which illustrate the almost mindboggling complexity of human life—what the great Dr. Jerome Lejeune famously described as “the symphony of life.”

The listener learns that the basis for the story is an article that ran yesterday in Nature. (For some reason, I could not open “Transcriptional landscape of the prenatal human brain” at the Nature website when I was writing this post, but I got a fairly detailed overview of the study from

Back to NPR.

The following is from the transcript found on the webpage, which, as always, differs slightly from what you hear.

“[Lein] and a large team of researchers decided to use genetic techniques to create a map that would help reveal this process. Funding came from the 2009 federal stimulus package. The project is part of the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain.

“The massive effort required tens of thousands of brain tissue samples so small that they had to be cut out with a laser. …

“Researchers tested each sample to see which genes were turned on and off in each tiny bit of brain. This helped the team figure out which types cells were present at specific points in the brain and what those cells were doing, Lein says.”

To Hamilton’s credit, he includes an important fact not found at

“Researchers used brain tissue from four aborted fetuses, a practice that the Obama administration has authorized over the objections of abortion opponents.”

One of the two major findings from the mapping project, Hamilton says, “is that the human brain is different from a mouse brain in ways researchers didn’t know about before. …The map shows just how little scientists had known about the brain of a fetus.”

I wonder if further “mapping,” that does not require the deaths of unborn children, might show these scientists just how much more than mere “tissue” unborn human life really is. Perhaps they ought to have mapped their hearts first.

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Categories: Fetal Development