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  • 5/19/2007

Adult Brain Develops Early On

students in the class

A new research suggests some of the brain"s basic building blocks for learning are nearing adult levels by age 11 or 12.

It is the first finding from a study coordinated by the US National Institutes of Health of how children"s brains grow, but the most interesting results are yet to come.

The report published by the Journal of the International Neuopsychological Society contains the first glimpse of behavioral data - covering IQ, motor dexterity, language, computation, and social skills - collected from children aged 6 to 18.

About 500 super-healthy newborns to teenagers, recruited from super-healthy families, are having periodic MRI scans of their brains as they grow up.

The long-term goal of the study team is to link these behavioral data to MRI scans of the children"s brains.

Together, the data sets will allow researchers to view how the brain grows and reorganizes itself throughout childhood, and to explore the meaning of the structural changes they see.

Overlap them with the children"s shifting behavioral and intellectual abilities at each age, and scientists expect to produce a long-sought map of normal brain development in children.

On Friday, scientists were publishing a sneak peek at some surprising early results.

Performance on a variety of cognitive tasks - working memory, vocabulary, spatial recognition, reasoning, calculation - rapidly improves between age 6 and 10, but then levels off.

"We don"t honestly know why," said Dr. Deborah Waber of Children"s Hospital Boston, who led the analysis.

The adolescent brain is still growing. According to Dr. Jordan Grafman of the NIH"s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the region responsible for things such as impulse control and moral judgment is the last to mature, sometime in the early 20s, said .

The study did not evaluate those kinds of skills. "It"s an incomplete picture," he said.

Adult Brain Develops Early On

But the age finding does make sense, suggesting a foundation necessary for higher learning is in place by puberty, said Dr. John Gilmore of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Scientists already knew that before age 12, the brain is racing to wire itself, making more connections between nerve cells that in turn enlarge vital regions.

This is a time of rapid learning, the reason it is easier to learn a foreign language as a young child than as a teenager or adult, Gilmore said.

The study also found that girls start with a slightly better verbal ability but boys catch up by adolescence; they have an equal aptitude for math.

While children from low-income families scored slightly lower on IQ tests, earlier suggestions of a bigger gap are due to poorer health among poor families.


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