We seek to understand the mechanisms underlying brain damage in congenital heart-defects patients, by developing an advanced photonics-based neuro-imaging device for infants.

Tiny Brains is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative project that brings together end-users, academy and industry. The end-users are the specialists in the treatment and management of infants born with congenital heart-defects and clinical imaging experts. The researchers in the academic institutions are physicists and engineers experts in biophotonics, and the industry members add their expertise in medical and monitoring devices like EEG, fNIRS, DCS and biophotonics standards.

Our goals

Hypoxic-ischemia is a brain dysfunction that occurs when the brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen or blood flow for some time. It plays a major role in more than 50% of the cases of neonatal and infant encephalopathy, first in newborns and later in infants. While researchers know of its importance, it is still unclear to what extent and when it can occur.

Determining the duration, severity and particular moment of occurrence of hypoxic-ischemia is very important. We will address this by focusing on a condition known as congenital heart defects (CHD), which are the most common birth defects. Tiny Brains will:

Build a novel research tool focused on cutting-edge research for preventing brain injury in the newborns and infants.

Use two photonic technologies to measure the duration, severity, and location of the hypoxic-ischemia in newborns with congenital heart defects.

Improve the understanding of the cellular origin of these neurodevelopmental problems, by helping to analyze the link between energy demand and oxygen supply, in pre-clinical and clinical studies.

Baby in ICU
Healthy baby in ICU


Brain injury is very difficult to detect with a physical exam alone. In some cases, patients with congenital heart-defects may suffer neurological injuries during the neonatal period. Unfortunately, many of those patients are asymptomatic. To correctly diagnose them, physicians need to perform brain magnetic resonance images (MRI) or electroencephalograms (EEG). The prevention of brain injury requires a better knowledge of the timing when adverse physiological events happen.

Our project proposes a multi-modal approach towards a non-invasive and multi-modal tool by combining two advanced photonics systems (fNIRS, DCS) with a quantitative electroencephalogram and a head-cap. It will allow us to obtain useful and multi-modal data for better understanding the origins of neuronal injury in congenital heart defects, by carrying out studies on an animal model and in clinical groups.

1. Biophotonics for neuro-imaging

Laser detector
The High-density functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and Diffuse correlation spectroscopy (DCS) are two of the most advanced photonic technologies available for imaging the infant’s brain, acquiring and processing data in real-time.
By integrating them with an imaging device EEG, the resulting images will have higher specificity, penetration, and spatial resolution.

2. Preclinical and Clinical studies

Clinical and preclinical studies - Tiny Brains
Our approach is multimodal, covering both the pre-clinical and clinical aspects of the research. It is supported by other forms of data such as those from pathology, advanced magnetic resonance imaging, and modeling.
We will study the relationship between brain oxygen metabolism and electrical activity, during and after surgical procedures, in congenital heart-disease infants.

3. Measuring the brain hemodynamics, oxygen metabolism and electrical activity

The two biophotonic technologies fNIRS and DCS can measure the blood flow, known as hemodynamics, over time, at one or two locations.

The Joint Lab by ICFO and the Institut de Recerca Sant Joan de Déu is a joint effort to promote interdisciplinary research activities, to boost the development and application of photonic technologies as solutions for the care of the neonatal and pediatric population.