Multimodal imaging of the self-regulating developing brain
Self-regulation refers to the ability to control behavior, cognition, and emotions, and self-regulation failure is related to a range of neuropsychiatric problems. It is poorly understood how structural maturation of the brain brings about the gradual improvement in self-regulation during childhood. In a large-scale multicenter effort, 735 children (4-21 y) underwent structural MRI for quantification of cortical thickness and surface area and diffusion tensor imaging for quantification of the quality of major fiber connections. Brain development was related to a standardized measure of cognitive control (the flanker task from the National Institutes of Health Toolbox), a critical component of self-regulation. Ability to inhibit responses and impose cognitive control increased rapidly during preteen years. Surface area of the anterior cingulate cortex accounted for a significant proportion of the variance in cognitive performance. This finding is intriguing, because characteristics of the anterior cingulum are shown to be related to impulse, attention, and executive problems in neurodevelopmental disorders, indicating a neural foundation for self-regulation abilities along a continuum from normality to pathology. The relationship was strongest in the younger children. Properties of large-fiber connections added to the picture by explaining additional variance in cognitive control. Although cognitive control was related to surface area of the anterior cingulate independently of basic processes of mental speed, the relationship between white matter quality and cognitive control could be fully accounted for by speed. The results underscore the need for integration of different aspects of brain maturation to understand the foundations of cognitive development.