May 29, 2007

Database Tracks Brain Development in Hundreds of Children

Photo of a group of healthy school age children

A new study provides a valuable set of benchmarks for brain development in healthy children. In the future, this information will help researchers determine how diseases, prenatal exposure to toxins and other conditions cause brain development to stray from its normal course.

The NIH Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Study of Normal Brain Development was launched in 1999 in a joint effort by NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The study team set out to track brain and behavioral development in about 500 healthy American children, newborn to age 18, from diverse geographic, socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

The team is collecting brain scans and giving the children a battery of psychological tests to measure a broad spectrum of abilities, from fine motor control, to social skills, to aspects of intelligence, such as the ability to explain verbal concepts or solve visual puzzles. A report published online on May 18, 2007, in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society detailed the results of a first round of psychological testing for 385 children in the 6-18 age range.

Some of the behavioral data reflect trends seen in other studies. For example, children from low income families performed somewhat more poorly on IQ and achievement tests and displayed more behavioral problems compared to children from middle and higher income families. They did not differ, however, on many other measures, such as memory and verbal fluency, or on most measures of social adjustment.

There were hints of much-cited differences in verbal and spatial ability between boys and girls, but these differences were not as sharp as those described in previous reports. There were no gender differences in verbal fluency. There were also no differences in calculation ability, suggesting that boys and girls have an equal aptitude for math.

Regardless of income or gender, the children appeared to improve rapidly in many basic cognitive and motor skills between the ages of 6 and 10 and appeared to approach adult levels of performance by 11 or 12. This result fits with previous research suggesting that in adolescence, there is a shift toward integrating what one knows rather than learning new basic skills. However, the researchers caution that these early data compare different children at a single time point. To give a more complete picture of how the brain matures, each child will be followed for several months to years, depending on age.

The researchers aim to link these behavioral results to scans of the children's brains. The combined data will form a database of how the normal brain develops, so that researchers can better understand what goes wrong in children who have brain abnormalities.

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