Purpose of review: The prevalence of childhood neurodevelopmental disorders has been increasing over the last several decades. Prenatal and early childhood exposure to environmental toxicants is increasingly recognized as contributing to the growing rate of neurodevelopmental disorders. Very little information is known about the mechanistic processes by which environmental chemicals alter brain development. We review the recent advances in brain imaging modalities and discuss their application in epidemiologic studies of prenatal and early childhood exposure to environmental toxicants.
Recent findings: Neuroimaging techniques (volumetric and functional MRI, diffusor tensor imaging, and magnetic resonance spectroscopy) have opened unprecedented access to study the developing human brain. These techniques are noninvasive and free of ionization radiation making them suitable for research applications in children. Using these techniques, we now understand much about structural and functional patterns in the typically developing brain. This knowledge allows us to investigate how prenatal exposure to environmental toxicants may alter the typical developmental trajectory.
Summary: MRI is a powerful tool that allows in-vivo visualization of brain structure and function. Used in epidemiologic studies of environmental exposure, it offers the promise to causally link exposure with behavioral and cognitive manifestations and ultimately to inform programs to reduce exposure and mitigate adverse effects of exposure.