The Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory

JB-and-TheirWorldThe Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory was established at the University of Edinburgh by PiggyBankKids (now Theirworld) in 2004. The vibrant laboratory is home to a team of world class and highly motivated scientists and clinicians working with a unified focus and commitment to understanding the effects of pregnancy complications on the mother and her baby.


High resolution MRI scan of a preterm infant brain. The slice shown is through the right cerebral hemisphere [R] and nerve tracts are colour coded by the direction in which they are organised in the brain. This is one of the most powerful ways of investigating brain connections in humans.

About Us

The overarching aim of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory is to improve the lives of women and children who suffer complications in pregnancy and the newborn period.

Preterm birth is the single biggest cause of death and disability among newborn babies and is a leading cause of neurodevelopmental impairment in childhood.  This leads to suffering for individuals and their families and prevents affected children from fulfilling their educational and employment potentials. Improved understanding of the disturbances to brain structure and function that accompany preterm birth is essential for the development of therapies designed to improve outcome. The goal of our translational research programme is to identify the triggers for preterm labour and treatments to prevent it, and to identify the mechanisms that lead to abnormal fetal or neonatal brain growth and poor outcome.

A major strength of our pioneering research projects is the unified focus on obstetric and neonatal problems. We study a mouse model of preterm labour and preterm brain injury (Dr Girardi), and we use state of the art magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to uncover the effects of perinatal adversity on brain development in fetal (Dr Denison) and neonatal life (Dr Boardman).


Our Research in 2012

In 2012 we completed our projects on the role of oxygen and growth restriction as mediators on injury to the developing brain (led by Dr Julie-Clare Becher).

We launched a new research programme with a focus on animal and human MRI to study the developing brain in vivo in healthy and compromised pregnancies. We have prioritised this research theme because the global burden of neurodevelopmental impairment after pregnancy complications is high.

Our Research in 2013
Our Aims and objectives
  1. To develop advanced magnetic resonance (MR) imaging as a tool for investigating causal pathways to brain injury in the fetus and neonate.
  2. To investigate the role of fetal and neonatal MR for predicting neurodevelopmental impairment in childhood.
  3. To investigate the roles of inflammation, oxygen toxicity and impaired antenatal growth on early brain development.
  4. To train the basic and clinical perinatal scientists of the future.
Our component projects:

1. Advanced MR imaging to investigate risk modulators for brain injury associated with premature birth (lead: Dr James Boardman).

Aim: to build a MR image repository that is linked to detailed clinical, biochemical and genetic data in collaboration with the Edinburgh Perinatal Biobank.

This rich resource will enable exploratory analyses of the effects of inflammation, abnormal growth patterns and other putative risk modulators for preterm brain injury.

Anticipated outputs, outcomes and impact:
A unique library of high resolution 3T MR images linked to biological data that will be used to uncover new pathways to brain injury, which in turn will lead to new approaches to therapy in the future.

2. Advanced MR imaging to predict neurodevelopmental impairment in childhood
(lead: Dr James Boardman).

Aim: to test the hypothesis that following preterm birth quantitative MR measures at term equivalent age relate to developmental ability at 2 years.

Method: we will acquire state of the art MR images from preterm infants and infants born at full term, and see whether MRI features predict ability in infancy and at 2 years.

Anticipated outputs, outcomes and impact:
We expect to define structural differences in the brain in the newborn period that underlie specific neurodevelopmental outcomes, which will allow their validation as MR biomarkers in further substantive studies. This is a vital step for testing new therapies and is needed to expedite the translation of putative therapies into clinical practice.

3. Novel fetal brain imaging to identify early markers of brain injury in pregnancies complicated by uteroplacental insufficiency (lead: Dr Fiona Denison).

Aim: to test the hypothesis that novel fetal MR techniques detect disturbances to brain development that predict death or cerebral palsy.

Methods: we will recruit 40 women whose pregnancies are complicated with uteroplacental insufficiency and / or poor fetal growth, and 40 women with uncomplicated pregnancies for fetal imaging between 20 and 34 weeks PMA. Image features will be related to outcome at 18 months.

Anticipated outputs, outcomes and impact:
We expect to demonstrate that fetal MR imaging is sensitive to detect acquired brain injury in the context of uteroplacental insufficiency. This would lead directly to studies that establish the predictive value of fetal MR and its utility in the management of high risk pregnancy. Specifically, the information will help inform obstetricians and midwives about optimal timing of delivery in complicated pregnancies.

4. The role of complement activation in brain injury in a model of inflammation-induced preterm delivery (lead: Dr Guillermina Girardi).

Aim: to test the hypothesis that complement activation (part of the immune system) contributes to brain injury after preterm delivery.

Methods: we will use a mouse model of inflammation induced preterm delivery to investigate inflammatory mechanisms that lead to brain injury. If complement activation is shown to play a role in fetal brain injury we will use molecular imaging techniques to detect complement deposition in the antenatal period.

Anticipated outputs, outcomes and impact:
We expect to uncover the role of complement activation in the causal pathway to perinatal brain injury. This will pave the way for new approaches to antenatal detection of brain injury and neuroprotection.

Our Research Team

The programme is carried out through collaboration between the University of Edinburgh (Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, MRC/University of Edinburgh Centre for Reproductive Health, Centre for Integrative Physiology, the Clinical Research Imaging Centre, and the department of Child Life and Health, Moray House School of Education) and NHS Lothian (Simpson Centre for Reproductive Health).

Dr Boardman is an expert in designing systems for newborns undergoing MR imaging and in the application of advanced MR image analysis to neonatal data. Dr Denison has a strong track record in fetal image acquisition and both have active collaborations with Dr Semple, Dr Bastin, and Professor Roberts, who are experts in the development and application of MR sequences in perinatal life and image processing methodologies (Clinical Research Imaging Centre, University of Edinburgh). Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson is a developmental psychologist with expertise in measuring cognition in early life.  Dr Graham Wilkinson is a paediatric radiologist with expertise in neonatal brain MRI. Dr Girardi is an internationally recognised leading expert in animal models of pregnancy complications and has developed a clinically relevant model of inflammation-induced preterm delivery.

Principal Investigator Profiles

  • Dr James Boardman
  • Dr Guillermina Girardi
  • Dr Fiona Denison

Research environment

We conduct our research in the following facilities:
Through our established relationship with the University of Edinburgh, our research space and facilities for the Jennifer Brown Laboratory are hosted by the University (Queen’s Medical Research Institute). This facility will continue to host project 4 in partnership with the MRC/University Centre Reproductive Health (MRC/CRH).

The Simpson Centre for Reproductive Health (SCRH) delivers 7000 infants per annum and is the regional centre for women with high risk pregnancies.  The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at SCRH is the regional centre for tertiary level care of preterm infants. Research participants are recruited from this site.

The Clinical Research Imaging Centre (CRIC) houses a state-of-the art 3 Tesla Siemens MR imaging system that can accommodate pregnant women and neonates undergoing MR imaging for translational research.

The Royal Hospital for Sick Children will relocate to the Little France site within the duration of the programme and it is expected that this will provide an expansion of research imaging facilities for children.


Our current research programme will be a platform for training basic and clinical scientists. We will offer four – year PhD studentships hosted by the MRC/CRH to aspiring basic and imaging scientists. This is a competitive and innovative programme that draws from an international pool of applicants and has proven to be successful since its inception in 2011. We will continue to build on the tradition of the Jennifer Brown laboratory to support talented clinical academics in training.

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Contact Us

For Research and General Enquiries:

For Press Enquiries:
Tel: 0131 650 9836

For Information on Giving:
Development & Alumni
Charles Stewart House
9-16 Chambers Street
Edinburgh EH1 1HT
Tel: 0131 650 2240

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Updated 19 April, 2014