Brain Scans Can Assess Child’s Age
August 17, 2012

Developmental Clock In The Brain Can Assess Child’s Age

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

A group of researchers, led by scientists from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), have created a set of measurements that can measure a child´s age with 92 percent accuracy.

The study´s results, published in the September 25 edition of Current Biology, highlighted the issue on biological variability in children. The researchers found that structural measures and maturational differences during adolescence and maturing young adults are smaller than previously understood. The report provided a composite profile of varying phases of brain development from three to twenty years of age. It is the first study published by the Pediatric Imaging, Neurocognition, and genetics Study (PING), which was aided by a two-year stimulus grant from the National institutes of Health. The results may lead to a better understanding of brain science and medicine.

"We have uncovered a 'developmental clock' within the brain–a biological signature of maturation that captures age differences quite well regardless of other kinds of differences that exist across individuals," remarked first author Timothy T. Brown, developmental cognitive neuroscientist in the Department of Neurosciences at UCSD, in a prepared statement.

The team created a number of biomarkers of brain anatomy, including one which showed the neuroanatomic development of the shape, seize, and tissue properties of different parts of the brain. Advances in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) aided the researchers in their project. They collected data from 885 participants, typically including developing children and teens. They recorded information on items like the volume of deep structures, the signal intensities and tissue properties, as well as the measurements of cortical thickness and area.

"No individual measurement closely reflects a child's age across the childhood years, because changes of different kinds cascade dynamically as development progresses. But taken together, the measurements reveal a phenotype that is tightly linked to the child's chronological age," commented Terry Jernigan, professor of cognitive science at UCSD, in the statement.

Based on the project, researchers from different institutions can establish large-scale, shared databases from the group of multimodal, multisite images.

"Since this multi-dimensional MRI method is entirely objective, quantitative, and noninvasive, and can powerfully distinguish among different phases of maturity, we hope it might also be useful for the early detection of developmental brain disorders," noted Brown in the statement.

Furthermore, the scientists also hope to explore this new approach to be used for clinical purposes.

"The fact that we found a collection of brain measures that so accurately captures a person's chronological age means that brain development, or at least certain anatomical aspects of it, is more tightly controlled than we knew previously," commented Brown in the statement. "The regularity in this maturity metric among typically developing children suggests that it might be sensitive to detecting abnormality as well."

Lastly, the investigators are not clear on how the anatomical changes in the brain could be associated with maturity of human behavior.

"The anatomy and physiology of these dynamic, interacting neural systems, which we can probe in different ways with MRI scans, have to account for the changes we all observe in human psychological development," Brown concluded in the statement. "We're still figuring out exactly how."