Science + Technology

UCLA Researchers Map Brain Development in Four Dimensions, Revealing Stage-Specific Growth Patterns in Children

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UCLA brain imaging researchers have developed a powerful new techniquefor creating maps of growth patterns in the brains of children. The findings,published in the March 9 issue of the journal Nature, offer an excitingnew window on brain development, revealing extraordinarily complex patternsof tissue growth and loss.

The scientists employed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technologyto scan a group of children aged 3 to 15 across very short (two weeks)and very long (four years) time intervals. This sophisticated imaging approach,the first to detect and track local changes in growth throughout the brainsof individual children, produces high-resolution maps of these dynamicprocesses in four dimensions--length, breadth, depth and time.

Led by Dr. Paul Thompson at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, theresearch team used high-performance computers to analyze brain images.The team found that brain systems specialized for learning language grewextremely rapidly from the age of six until puberty in both boys and girls.These linguistic brain areas experience a dramatic shutting down of growtharound ages 11 to 15, coinciding with the end of a well-known period duringwhich children easily learn new languages.

Scientists also detected a massive growth spurt from ages three to sixin frontal regions of the brain that specialize in organizing and planningnew behaviors. During this period, children learn an immense variety ofnew behaviors.

As children approach puberty and adolescence, a wave of peak growthmoves backwards in the brain toward language systems. From ages 7 to 11,children rapidly lose tissue in deep brain nuclei that control motor skills,such as learning to ride a bicycle, thus suggesting a refinement in processingefficiency and a pruning away of redundant tissue.

Thompson said the findings have key implications for educating children.Aided by a better understanding how the brain develops, educators couldteach languages, mathematics and other specific skills at the most advantageoustimes.

In another first, the brain mapping technique reveals underlying changesin the brain's anatomical hardware as children acquire new skills. Nowthat they have detected previously unseen waves of growth and key anatomicalchanges, scientists can establish powerful linkages between cognitive andbehavioral changes and rapid changes in underlying brain structures.

The findings have exciting diagnostic implications as well. By assemblingthe first detailed maps of the growing brain, researchers can detect aberrantgrowth profiles that allow earlier diagnosis and treatment of learningand developmental disorders such as autism, attention deficit-hyperactivitydisorder, and childhood-onset schizophrenia.

The UCLA researchers also applied this new imaging approach to adultpatients with Alzheimer's disease. They made the intriguing discovery thatthe last brain systems to mature in adolescence degenerate first in dementia.

NOTE TO MEDIA: Animated sequences and still images from this researchat the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging are available. Certain images canbe downloaded from the Internet at: http://www.loni.ucla.edu/~thompson/JAY/Growth_REVISED.html

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