Patterns of white matter microstructure present in babies’ brains at birth and that develop soon after birth have been found to predict the cognitive function of children at ages one and two, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine.
“To our knowledge, this study is the first to measure and describe the development of white matter microstructure in children and its relationship to cognitive development from the time they are born until the age of two years,” said John H. Gilmore, M.D., senior author of the study and director of the Early Brain Development Program in the UNC Department of Psychiatry.
White matter — tissue in the brain that contains axon fibers, which connect neurons in one brain region to another — is critical for normal brain function. Little is known about how white matter develops in humans or how it is related to growth of cognitive skills in early childhood, including language development.
For the study, 685 children (including 429 twins) received diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) scans of their brains. DTI is a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique that provides a description of the diffusion of water through tissue. This image can be used to identify white matter tracts in the brain and describe the organization and maturation of the tracts.
The researchers used these brain scans to analyze the microstructure of 12 white matter fiber tracts important for cognitive function, their relationship to developing cognitive function and their heritability.
They found all 12 of the fiber tracts in the newborns were highly related to each other. By age one, these fiber tracts had begun to differentiate themselves from each other, and by age two this differentiation was further advanced.
The most interesting finding from the study was that the relationship between white matter tracts at birth predicted overall cognitive development at age one and language development at age two, suggesting that it may be possible to use brain imaging at birth to better understand how a child’s cognitive development will proceed in the first years after birth.
Because the study involved twins, the researchers were also able to calculate that this predictive trait was moderately heritable, suggesting that genetics may be a factor in its development.
“There is rapid growth of brain structure, cognition and behavior in early childhood, and we are just starting to understand how they are related,” said Gilmore.
“With a better understanding of these relationships, we ultimately hope to be able to identify children at risk for cognitive problems or psychiatric disorders very early and come up with interventions that can help the brain develop in a way to improve function and reduce risk.”
The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.