Baby braaaaaaains are difficult to study, given the fact that they reside within baby skulls. Scientists have long wondered about the effects of infections, nutrition, or birth weight – but they are left to do studies that report on associations, not causation.

A new tool to get deeper into the questions of human infant development is coming – through the oinky lens of piglet development.

That’s right: baby pig brains will help scientists unravel the mysteries of human development. That’s the idea behind an on-going project at the University of Illinois.

Professor of Animal Sciences Rodney Johnson and UI colleagues have developed a magnetic resonance imaging based brain atlas for the four-week old piglet that offers a three-dimensional averaged brain and 19 different anatomical regions. The researchers used 15 piglets to create the online atlas, which is freely available.

The researchers first knocked the 4-week-old piglets out with anesthesia, then put them into an MRI machine, where pictures were taken of their brains. Then they combined the pictures into a three-dimensional atlas, which will be used as a template for future studies.

Knowing the ins and outs of piglet brains could help answer some interesting questions for humans. The group hopes to find out the effect of viral infections, pneumonia, iron deficiencies, birth weight and early-life nutrition on brain development, Johnson told me. “Since some insults can result in developmental delays, understanding the underlying mechanisms is critical for prevention and treatment,” he said.

It helps that baby pig brains have remarkable similarities to baby human brains. At birth, the human brain is about 25 percent of adult size. In the first two years of life, it reaches 85 to 90 percent of adult size. The piglet brain grows in a similar way in a shorter time. “Brain growth in the perinatal period is very similar, as is overall structure,” said Johnson. His MRI study was published last month in the journal PLOS ONE.

Johnson told a website that the idea for one of the studies, which will look the brain impacts of nutrition on piglet brain development, came to him when a former student, who was working for an infant formula company, asked about finding ways to determine differences in cognitive development between breast-fed infants and infants fed on formula.

It’s not easy to do fine-grain brain studies in human babies, but finding the answers may be far more feasible in piglets.

Citation: An In Vivo Three-Dimensional Magnetic Resonance Imaging-Based Averaged Brain Collection of the Neonatal Piglet (Sus scrofa). September 25, 2014 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0107650