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Science Magazine - Connected brain regions grow up together

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Published: 7 Dec 2011

Connectivity is a hot topic in neuroscience these days. Instead of trying to figure out what individual brain regions do, researchers are focusing more on how regions work together as a network to enable memory, language, and decision-making. Now, a study of more than 100 children finds that interconnected brain regions develop in concert through childhood and adolescence.

Connectivity is a hot topic in neuroscience these days. Instead of trying to figure out what individual brain regions do, researchers are focusing more on how regions work together as a network to enable memory, language, and decision-making. Now, a study of more than 100 children finds that interconnected brain regions develop in concert through childhood and adolescence. The researchers say their work could have implications for understanding various puzzles in neuroscience, such as what goes wrong in autism or why adolescent boys are prone to risky behavior.

"This encourages us to look past the notion that regions of the brain develop in isolation," says Bradley Schlaggar, a child neurologist and developmental cognitive neuroscientist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis in Missouri. "I think that's really an important insight."

Schlaggar thinks similar methods could be useful in studies of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. It's possible that normal brain development depends on certain brain regions maturing in synchrony, Schlaggar says. Alan Evans, a neuroimaging scientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital in Canada, agrees, noting that many researchers think autism arises when brain development goes awry, resulting in abnormal connectivity among brain regions.

"I would bet that you'd see significant differences between an autistic population and an age-matched normal population using this methodology," he says. Both Schlaggar and Evans find the sex-difference findings less compelling, though. "It's intriguing," Evans says, "but that particular result needs further exploration."

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