Structural and functional brain development and its relation to cognitive development
Magnetic Resonance Imaging
Despite significant gains in the fields of pediatric neuroimaging and developmental neurobiology, surprisingly little is known about the developing human brain or the neural bases of cognitive development. This paper addresses MRI studies of structural and functional changes in the developing human brain and their relation to changes in cognitive processes over the first few decades of human life. Based on post-mortem and pediatric neuroimaging studies published to date, the prefrontal cortex appears to be one of the last brain regions to mature. Given the prolonged physiological development and organization of the prefrontal cortex during childhood, tasks believed to involve this region are ideal for investigating the neural bases of cognitive development. A number of normative pediatric fMRI studies examining prefrontal cortical activity in children during memory and attention tasks are reported. These studies, while largely limited to the domain of prefrontal functioning and its development, lend support for continued development of attention and memory both behaviorally and physiologically throughout childhood and adolescence. Specifically, the magnitude of activity observed in these studies was greater and more diffuse in children relative to adults. These findings are consistent with the view that increasing cognitive capacity during childhood may coincide with a gradual loss rather than formation of new synapses and presumably a strengthening of remaining synaptic connections. It is clear that innovative methods like fMRI together with MRI-based morphometry and nonhuman primate studies will transform our current understanding of human brain development and its relation to behavioral development.