Baby Brains at Work: How Task-Based Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Can Illuminate the Early Emergence of Psychiatric Risk

Ashley N. Nielsen, Alice M. Graham, Chad M. Sylvester

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Psychiatric disorders are complex, often emerging from multiple atypical processes within specified domains over the course of development. Characterizing the development of the neural circuits supporting these domains may help break down the components of complex disorders and reveal variations in functioning associated with psychiatric risk. This review highlights the current and potential role of infant task-based functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in elucidating the developmental neurobiology of psychiatric disorders. Task-fMRI measures evoked brain activity in response to specific stimuli through changes in the blood oxygen level–dependent signal. First, we review extant studies using task fMRI from birth through the first few years of life and synthesize current evidence for when, where, and how different neural computations are performed across the infant brain. Neural circuits for sensory perception, the perception of abstract categories, and the detection of statistical regularities have been characterized with task fMRI in infants, providing developmental context for identifying and interpreting variation in the functioning of neural circuits related to psychiatric risk. Next, we discuss studies that specifically examine variation in the functioning of these neural circuits during infancy in relation to risk for psychiatric disorders. These studies reveal when maturation of specific neural circuits diverges, the influence of environmental risk factors, and the potential utility for task fMRI to facilitate early treatment or prevention of later psychiatric problems. Finally, we provide considerations for future infant task-fMRI studies with the potential to advance understanding of both functioning of neural circuits during infancy and subsequent risk for psychiatric disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)880-892
Number of pages13
JournalBiological Psychiatry
Issue number10
StatePublished - May 15 2023


  • Evoked
  • Infant
  • Psychiatry
  • Risk
  • Task
  • fMRI


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