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American Association for the Advancement of Science

The human brain -- from childhood to adulthood

Functional brain connections important for predicting the functional maturity of individual brains from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. The thickness of each connection indicates its relative weight in predicting brain maturity. Functional connections that grow stronger with maturation are shown in orange, whereas those that weaken with maturation are shown in green.
Image © Science/AAAS

Have you ever wondered how the human brain grows and changes as people get older? Well, according to new research, a five-minute brain scan is all scientists need to find out how mature someone's brain isóand in the 10 September issue of Science, a group of researchers describes some of the main differences between a child's brain and a mature adult's brain.

An oil painting with an image of the brain over-laid. The nodes that appear within the boundaries of the brain correspond to actual task-related regions of interest, colored according to the networks that they form and scaled in size by their weight in those networks.
Image courtesy of Joshua Siegel and Jeannette Wong

Nico Dosenbach from Washington University in St. Louis, MO, and colleagues from across the United States used a process called functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging, or fcMRI, to make short, five-minute brain scans of 238 different volunteers. These volunteers were anywhere from seven to 30 years oldóchildren, teenagers, and adults too.

Dosenbach and his colleagues analyzed all 238 brain scans with a state-of-the-art computer program that can identify complex patterns hidden within images. The results of their analysis show that long-distance connections between neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain tend to get stronger with age. While, on the other hand, the short-range connections between neurons in the brain tend to get weaker as people get older.

The team of researchers says that the most notable feature of a mature brain is the loss of those short-range connections. In light of their findings, they suggest that a mature brain would be full of sparseróbut strongeróneuronal connections, compared to a child's brain.

Dosenbach and his colleagues even suggest that a quick, five-minute brain scan could become standard practice to help doctors with screening, diagnosing, and treating patients with disordered brain functions in the future.