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Modell eines Gehirns mit Nervenzelle
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New insights into human brain development


Researchers Identify Sex-Specific Differences


The development of the human brain is a key factor in mental health. Already in the early stages of life, the way in which the brain receives and processes signals and information changes significantly at different stages of development. Impaired development can have lasting consequences and lead to mental disorders. Together with international research partners, researchers at the University Hospital Tübingen have gained some enlightening insights: The neural complexity of brain activity changes differently than expected between the late stage of pregnancy and early childhood and, moreover, with sex-specific differences. These findings have now been published in the prestigious journal ‘Nature Mental Health’.

In the study, the team examined how the human brain responds to external stimuli, such as auditory sequences, both before and after birth. The brain’s responses could be measured using fetal magnetoencephalography (fMEG), a non-invasive technique to measure brain activity in the womb from the surface of the mother’s abdomen. The sensors are arranged in a concave array that is shaped to perfectly fit the maternal abdomen. “Sensory stimulation provides us with a unique opportunity to observe how young brains process information from the outside. And all in a completely safe way,” explains DZD scientist Prof. Dr. Hubert Preissl from the fMEG Center at the University of Tübingen and the Institute for Diabetes Research and Metabolic Diseases of Helmholtz Munich.

Detecting and Treating Diseases Early On
The researchers had the following hypothesis: The more the brain develops, the more complex neural responses to external stimuli become. Surprisingly, the results show that the complexity of neural responses declines and, furthermore, at different rates depending on sex. These differences could shed light on why particular developmental disorders occur with differing frequency in boys and girls. “Initially, I was quite surprised,” admits Dr. Joel Frohlich from the Institute for Neuromodulation and Neurotechnology. “Intuitively, I had thought that as the brain matures, its activity should grow more complex.” However, it seems to make sense that maturing connections in the brain respond to external stimuli with structured patterns. A more developed brain is more ordered and therefore has fewer possibilities to respond to the same stimulus in a different way.

The research team from Tübingen plans to conduct further research into the relationship between the observed brain patterns and long-term mental health. “The earlier we identify the risk for the development of neuropsychiatric and metabolic disorders, the more effectively we can support brain development to prevent serious disease progression,” explains Prof. Dr. Alireza Gharabaghi from the Institute for Neuromodulation and Neurotechnology. 

These findings could pave the way for future preventive measures and treatment strategies, which the research team is also exploring at the Center for Bionic Intelligence and the German Center for Mental Health. The lead researchers in the study were Dr. Joel Frohlich, Dr. Julia Moser, Dr. Katrin Sippel, Dr. Pedro Mediano, Prof. Dr. Hubert Preissl, and Prof. Dr. Alireza Gharabaghi from the Institute for Neuromodulation and Neurotechnology at the University Hospital Tübingen.

Background: Neurotechnology for Better Treatments of Brain Diseases
The Institute for Neuromodulation and Neurotechnology at the University Hospital Tübingen was established in 2020 with the objective of using innovative methods to help patients. Around 25 physicians, neuroscientists, engineers, and computer scientists work together so that patients can benefit from the latest neurotechnological developments. The main focus is on neuromodulation. The aim is to have a positive impact on brain functions by means of brain pacemakers and neuroprostheses, magnetic or electrical stimulation, or even neurorobotics and ortheses, which help to improve rehabilitation after brain damage.

Original publication:                                                                                           
Frohlich J, Moser J, Sippel K, Mediano P, Preissl H & Gharabaghi A. Sex differences in prenatal development of neural complexity in the human brain. DOI: 10.1038/s44220-024-00206-4 

Scientific Contact:
Prof. Dr. Hubert Preißl
Institute for Diabetes Research and Metabolic Diseases
of Helmholtz Munich at the Eberhard-Karls-University Tuebingen
Otfried-Müller-Str. 10
72076 Tübingen
E-Mail: hubert.preissl(at)

Link to the paper

See DZD News for more information.