A new study puts together a roadmap of brain development from childhood to adolescence.
Researchers at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles report a “wave of brain maturation” underpins the social and behavioral changes children develop as they transition to adolescence.
Leaving the little leagues
“We know that children are growing substantially in their ability to self-regulate during this time,” says Mary Baron Nelson, Ph.D., the first author on this publication. “Among many other changes, their attention spans are expanding and they are learning social norms such as gauging appropriate responses or behaviors.”
As children mature, they enter more intense academic and social environments. During this period, their brains develop the ‘hardware’ for greater cognitive, emotional, and behavioral control. However, the team notes that we know very little about how this shift looks like from a neurological point of view.
They studied the anatomical, chemical, and behavioral changes in a group of “234 healthy, inner-city male and female youth” aged 9-12. “We used brain imaging, measured multiple chemicals and metabolites, and took cognitive and neuropsychological scores,” says Dr. Baron Nelson.
During this transition period, a “wave of maturation” sweeps through the brain, they report. The most notable change was seen in white matter tracts, which develop with age from the back to the front of the brain. The frontal lobes, the team explains, mediate executive function — long-term and complex planning, decision-making, and behavior. The frontal lobes only fully mature during our late twenties.
Children get a better handle on their impulses and on complex concepts as they grow into adulthood, and their performance in the researchers’ tasks reflect this. They conclude that the anatomical and metabolic changes described in this study are responsible for the increased abilities.
However, they do note that it is surprising to see these developments so early on, largely beginning during years 9-12.
“We’ve learned that this is not a wait-and-see period of time,” says Dr. Baron Nelson. “Dynamic changes are happening here and this gives us a real opportunity for intervention. We can help shape these kids as they grow.”
The paper “Maturation of Brain Microstructure and Metabolism Associates with Increased Capacity for Self-Regulation during the Transition from Childhood to Adolescence” has been published in the Journal of Neuroscience.