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Time-Lapse Imaging Tracks Brain Developing from ages 5 to 20

NIMH/UCLA Project Visualizes Maturing Brain

Contact: Dr. Paul Thompson (310)206-2101 thompson@loni.ucla.edu

or Dan Page, UCLA Health Sciences Communications (310)794-2265 dpage@support.ucla.edu

Brain Tissue Changes in Development (15 year timespan)

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Imaging Study Shows Brain Maturing

The brain's center of reasoning and problem solving is among the last to mature, a new study graphically reveals. The decade-long magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of normal brain development, from ages 4 to 21, by researchers at NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) shows that such "higher-order" brain centers, such as the prefrontal cortex, don't fully develop until young adulthood.

A time-lapse 3-D movie that compresses 15 years of human brain maturation, ages 5 to 20, into seconds shows gray matter - the working tissue of the brain's cortex - diminishing in a back-to-front wave, likely reflecting the pruning of unused neuronal connections during the teen years. Cortex areas can be seen maturing at ages in which relevant cognitive and functional developmental milestones occur. The sequence of maturation also roughly parallels the evolution of the mammalian brain, suggest Drs. Nitin Gogtay, Judith Rapoport, NIMH, and Paul Thompson, Kiralee Hayashi, Arthur Toga, UCLA, and colleagues, whose study is published online during the week of May 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"To interpret brain changes we were seeing in neurodevelopmental disorders like schizophrenia, we needed a better picture of how the brain normally develops," explained Rapoport.

The researchers scanned the same 13 healthy children and teens every two years as they grew up, for 10 years. After co-registering the scans with each other, using an intricate set of brain anatomical landmarks, they visualized the ebb and flow of gray matter - neurons and their branch-like extensions - in maps that, together, form the movie showing brain maturation from ages 5 to 20.

It was long believed that a spurt of overproduction of gray matter during the first 18 months of life was followed by a steady decline as unused circuitry is discarded. Then, in the late 1990s, NIMH's Dr. Jay Giedd, a co-author of the current study, and colleagues, discovered a second wave of overproduction of gray matter just prior to puberty, followed by a second bout of "use-it-or-lose-it" pruning during the teen years.

The new study found that the first areas to mature (e.g., extreme front and back of the brain) are those with the most basic functions, such as processing the senses and movement. Areas involved in spatial orientation and language (parietal lobes) follow. Areas with more advanced functions -- integrating information from the senses, reasoning and other "executive" functions (prefrontal cortex) - mature last. Intriguingly, time-lapse movies of Alzheimer's disease showed the opposite anatomical sequence - the last brain regions to develop in childhood are the first to degenerate in dementia; and the earliest developing brain regions - controlling vision and sensation - are spared until the very latest stages of Alzheimer's disease.

In a related study published a few years ago, Thompson, Rapoport and colleagues discovered an exaggerated wave of gray matter loss in teens with early onset schizophrenia. These teens, who became psychotic prior to puberty, lost four times the normal amount of gray matter in their frontal lobes, suggesting that childhood onset schizophrenia "may be an exaggeration of a normal maturation process, perhaps related to excessive synaptic pruning." By contrast, autistic children show an abnormal back-to-front wave of gray matter increases, rather than decreases, suggesting "a specific faulty step in early development."

Also participating in the new study were: Leslie Lusk, Cathy Vaituzis, Tom Nugent, David Herman, Drs. Deanna Greenstein, Liv Clasen, NIMH.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Article:

[1] Nitin Gogtay MD, Jay N. Giedd MD, Leslie Lusk BA, Kiralee M. Hayashi BS, Deanna Greenstein PhD, A. Catherine Vaituzis, David H. Herman BS, Tom F. Nugent III AB, Liv Clasen PhD, Arthur W. Toga PhD, Judith L. Rapoport MD, and Paul M. Thompson PhD: Dynamic Mapping of Human Cortical Development during Childhood through Early Adulthood, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101(21):8174-8179, May 25 2004 [published online, May 17 2004]. [Article, .pdf, 0.7MB] [Time-Lapse Videos].

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  • other research areas
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    Contact Information

  • Mail:

    Paul Thompson, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor of Neurology
    UCLA Lab of Neuro-Imaging and Brain Mapping Division
    Dept. Neurology and Brain Research Institute
    4238 Reed Neurology, UCLA Medical Center
    710 Westwood Plaza
    Westwood, Los Angeles CA 90095-1769, USA.

  • E-mail: thompson@loni.ucla.edu
  • Tel: (310)206-2101
  • Fax: (310)206-5518