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How Mature is Your Child’s Brain?

How Mature is Your Child's Brain?Physicians may have a new tool to assess and diagnose psychological and developmental disorders as researchers believe a new MRI scanner protocol can show the maturity of a child’s brain.

Washington University School of Medicine researchers believe their study proves brain imaging data that can offer extensive help in tracking aberrant brain development.

“Pediatricians regularly plot where their patients are in terms of height, weight and other measures, and then match these up to standardized curves that track typical developmental pathways,” says senior author Bradley Schlaggar, MD, PhD.

“When the patient deviates too strongly from the standardized ranges or veers suddenly from one developmental path to another, the physician knows there’s a need to start asking why.”

Schlaggar and his colleagues say a new way of looking at brain scanning data may be able to provide similar guidance for monitoring and treating of patients with psychiatric and developmental disorders.

Schlaggar says he has sent children with obvious, profound psychiatric conditions for MRI scans and received results marked “no abnormalities noted.”

“That’s typically looking at the data from a structural point of view—what’s different about the shapes of various brain regions,” he says.

“But MRI also offers ways to analyze how different parts of the brain work together functionally.”

Compare functional data to standardized models of how brain function or disease normally develops, Schlaggar says, and a range of new clinical insights becomes available.

Schlaggar and his colleagues use an approach to brain scanning called resting state functional connectivity. By correlating increases and decreases in blood flow to the various brain regions as subjects rest in the scanner, scientists determine which of these regions work together in brain networks.

In a study published in 2009, Washington University scientists showed that as the brain matures, brain networks change.

The overall organization switches from networks involving regions physically close to each other, which is the dominant motif in a child’s brain, to networks that connect distant regions, the primary organizational principal in adult brains.

For the new study, lead author Nico Dosenbach, MD, PhD, a pediatric neurology resident at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, took this and other distinctions that mark the transition from child to adult brain and adapted them for use in a technique for mathematical analysis called a support vector machine.

The technique is employed in many contexts in science and economics and on the Internet.

“It’s a way that mathematicians have developed for predicting something with high specificity and sensitivity when you have huge amounts of data instead of one really good measurement,” Dosenbach explains.

“Any one of these measurements doesn’t tell you much, but if you put them together and use the right math to sift through and restructure them, you can get good predictive results.”

Researchers charted the results of 238 brain maturity analyses, with age on the horizontal axis and maturity on the vertical axis.

Dosenbach used data from five-minute MRI scans of 238 normal subjects ranging in age from 7 to 30. The researchers suspect patients with brain disorders will appear out of alignment with this normal developmental curve.

“The beauty of this approach is that it lets you ask what’s different in the way that children with autism, for example, are off the normal development curve versus the way children with attention-deficit disorder are off that curve,” Schlaggar says.

Schlaggar suggests that functional brain scans might be conducted on a group of children at risk but not yet suffering from a developmental disorder.

“When a fraction of them later develop that disorder, you can go back and construct an analysis like this one that will help predict the characteristics of the next child at highest risk of developing the disorder,” he says. “That’s very powerful both clinically and from the perspective of understanding the causes of these disorders.”

This approach might enable treatment prior to onset of symptoms, Schlaggar says, and should help physicians more quickly and closely track the results of clinical trials of new therapies.

“MRI scans are expensive, so this may not be what we use for everyone right now,” Dosenbach says.

“But many children with these types of disorders already receive regular structural MRI scans, and five more minutes in the scanner won’t add that much to the cost.”

The study is published in this week’s Science.

Source: Washington University School of Medicine

How Mature is Your Child’s Brain?

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). How Mature is Your Child’s Brain?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 13 Sep 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.