New medical research tends to confirm that the human brain does not stop developing in adolescence, but continues well into our 20s, according to investigators at the University of Alberta.

“This is the first long-range study, using a type of imaging that looks at brain wiring, to show that in the white matter there are still structural changes happening during young adulthood,” said researcher Catherine Lebel, Ph.D. “The white matter is the wiring of the brain; it connects different regions to facilitate cognitive abilities. So the connections are strengthening as we age in young adulthood.”

The findings are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

In the study, researchers scanned the brains of 103 healthy people between the ages of five and 32 with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Each study subject was scanned at least twice, with a total of 221 scans being conducted overall.

Researchers determined that parts of the brain continue to develop post-adolescence within individual subjects. Specifically, the research revealed that young adult brains were continuing to develop wiring to the frontal lobe — areas responsible for complex cognitive tasks such as behavioral inhibition, high-level functioning and attention.

In the article, the researchers hypothesize that the continued wiring occurs because of the abundance of new life experiences that occur during young adulthood, such as pursuing post-secondary education, starting a career, forging independence and new social and family relationships.

Among the relatively young sample, researchers discovered that in some people, several brain tracts showed reductions in white matter integrity over time – a characteristic of brain degradation.

The researchers speculate that this brain scan observation may represent early stages of psychiatric disorders as these disorders typically develop in adolescence or young adulthood.

As such, the researchers believe further study is warranted to provide a better understanding of the relationship between psychiatric disorders and brain structure.

“What’s interesting is a lot of psychiatric illness and other disorders emerge during adolescence, so some of the thought might be if certain tracts start to degenerate too soon, it may not be responsible for these disorders, but it may be one of the factors that makes someone more susceptible to developing these disorders,” said co-author Christian Beaulieu, Ph.D.

Source: University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry