In just six minutes, an MRI scan ner can reveal whether a child’s brain is developing normally. That newfound capability was announced in September by a team at Washington University in St. Louis. Led by neurologist Bradley Schlaggar, the group studied 238 healthy volunteers, 7 to 30 years old, using functional MRI, a technique that identifies active neural circuits based on blood flow and blood oxygen levels. The scientists then used powerful computers to crunch the imaging data, seeking out common patterns of neural activity at different ages.
The Washington University team was able to home in on 200 patterns of neural activity that change as a brain matures. “Just as pediatricians chart height and weight to track developmental milestones, we can use patterns of neural activity to see where individuals fall within the typical range of variability for their age,” Schlaggar says. Beatriz Luna, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh, was staggered by the news. “As recently as a year ago, people thought this would be impossible,” she says. “We assumed there would be too much individual variation to track brain maturation.”
Reference maps of the maturing brain could improve our understanding of autism, schizophrenia, and other disturbances associated with abnormal brain development. “This promises to make functional MRI much more relevant as a diagnostic tool,” Schlaggar says.