Scientists can scan brains for maturity, potentially gauging child development

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 6:13 PM

Scientists have developed a scan that can measure the maturity of the brain, an advance that someday might be useful for testing whether children are maturing normally and for gauging whether teenagers are grown-up enough to be treated as adults.

A federally funded study that involved scanning more than 12,000 connections in the brains of 238 volunteers ages 7 to 30 found that the technique appeared to accurately differentiate between the brains of adults and children and determine roughly where individuals scored in the normal trajectory of brain development.

While much more work is needed to validate and refine the test, the technique could have a host of uses, including providing another way to make sure children’s brains are developing properly, in the same way doctors routinely measure other developmental milestones. The scan could, for example, identify children who might be at risk for autism, schizophrenia and other problems because their brains are not maturing normally.

“If you are worried about a kid’s development, in five minutes you could do a scan and it would spit out a measurement of their brain maturity level,” said Nico Dosenbach, a pediatric neurology resident at St. Louis Children’s Hospital who helped develop the technique described in Friday’s issue of the journal Science. “That’s sort of the future.”

But the test might be open to premature use or abuse, experts warn. Will overly anxious or competitive parents demand that their children be tested to see how they score compared with their peers? Or to help them decide whether children are mature enough, for example, to leave home for college? Will online dating services offer brain scans rating the maturity of potential mates? Will defense lawyers try to use scans to prove their young clients aren’t mature enough to be tried as adults? Or will prosecutors cite the scans to prove the opposite?

Lawyers have already attempted to use other types of brain scans as high-tech lie-detector tests, even though scientists say the scans are far from ready.

“I could imagine someone taking a minor who would have been charged under one set of law and say, ‘No, look. They have a brain that has greater maturity and we should try them as adults,’ ” said Joseph Fins, chief of the division of medical ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. “I’m concerned about the potential misuse of the nascent technology.”

Fins and other experts noted that the public has a tendency to oversimplify and exaggerate the power of brain scans.
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“Ultimately, the question for all these kinds of studies is: Does the brain imaging tell us more than we would learn by observing or asking or examining the participants?” said Anjan Chatterjee, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania. “Maybe this represents a step towards that possibility, but we are not there yet.”

Factors such as upbringing and other environmental influences remain important, several experts noted.

“There is a strange hold that neuroscience has on people, as if it is more real than what we know from observation,” Chatterjee said in an e-mail. “So, yes parents might want such scans, but it is not clear that it would tell them something about their child’s maturity that they don’t already know – or a careful observer already knows. As for boyfriends, maybe Internet dating sites could post such scans (maturity years). But the same applies. The woman in question could probably ask trusted friends and get a straight answer.”

The technique developed by Dosenbach and his colleagues uses magnetic resonance imaging, already commonly used to measure activity in the brain by correlating increases and decreases in blood flow to various brain regions. The scans are considered safe because they do not use radiation.

In this case, the technique was called functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging, or fcMRI, because it measured connections in the resting brains of the subjects. The researchers used a computer program to analyze how connections in the brain changed as the mind matured, pinpointing 200 to produce an index of maturity. They found that close connection weakened while distant connections strengthened as the brain matures, until about age 21 or 22.

“This paper represents a major step forward,” said Jay N. Giedd, chief of the brain imaging unit at the child psychiatry branch of the National Institute of Mental Health. The research “represents the next major paradigm shift, looking at ‘connectivity,’ or the relationship amongst subcomponents of the brain,” he said. “High impact for sure.”

Dosenbach estimated they were able to distinguish between the brain of children ages 7 to 11 and that of adults ages 25 to 30 with 90 percent accuracy. They were able to differentiate between adolescents and adults with 75 percent accuracy, Dosenbach said in an e-mail.

But Dosenbach warned that it would be premature to start using the technique to measure individual maturity levels.

“I would not endorse that,” he said.

Nurture Shock – Chapter 7: The Science of Teen Rebellion

Teenagers lie and apparently they lie a lot more than even I realized – even after raising three of them! The story in the beginning of the chapter is a little unsettling though I think supports the notion that many teens are giving adults the impression that they are on a good path when in fact they are just ‘doing school’ (a term I’m borrowing from Denise Clarke Pope) and on The Race to Nowhere. In one study 96% of teens reported lying to their parents. The reason? The most common reason was,”To protect the relationship with my parents – I don’t want them to be disappointed in me”.

I see this as good news. It reinforces what other researchers have said – that for teens the relationship with their parent is the most important relationship in their life. This is a really great point to remember when you have a rebellious teen who is pushing every boundary you try to set. I always kept my eye on the prize, so to speak – and did my best to maintain a good relationship with my children. Sometimes it meant a lot of compromising, but in the end, really all that mattered was that relationship.

I’m bored – if only I had a dime for every time I heard that phrase. According to the authors the more controlling and enabling the parent the more likely the child is to experience boredom. I had the exception to that rule. We did not fill our son’s free time – because he rejected structure. But he also didn’t like down time. So he’d finish with one activity and want to jump to another right away. Tired of constantly hearing “I’m bored” we tried a little humor, “It’s nice to meet you, I’m Sally”. Wasn’t what he wanted to hear of course, but it helped me not feel like I needed to immediately come up with something else to fill his free time.

Teens are risk takers. We all know that either from parenting teens or being risk takers ourselves (guilty). Researchers in PA came up with a program called TimeWise to help teens understand risk, peer pressure and essentially be ‘architects of their own experience’. Initially it looked like a great program, but over time the class did not have a huge impact. And the reason has to do with the teenage brain. Some teens are just wired to take big risks. More specifically the teen brain is handicapped in it’s ability to gauge risk and foresee consequences. Another interesting tidbit – teens can think abstractly but not feel abstractly until they have had more life experience to draw on. So, what’s a parent to do? Create opportunities for safe risk taking – skateboarding, skiing and snow boarding, dirt biking, jumping on a trampoline, climbing walls, mountain biking, white water rafting – none without risks but it sure beats joy riding in a car with a brain that feeds on big doses of the thrill factorl!!

The last part of the chapter goes back to discussing lying and arguing. Those families where there was less deception had a much higher amount of arguing. Arguing was seen as good thing for the teens, not so much for the parents. Arguing wears us out – I know this first hand. I wanted to encourage negotiation, partly because I didn’t have that opportunity in my family of origin. But it’s a delicate balance knowing when to continue the argument/negotiation and when to zip it and stop engaging with your teen.

I absolutely agree that parents need to let their teen feel heard – even if you totally disagree. They need to practice on someone and a parent seems like the safest place to do that. The authors barely touched on listening. I think listening in this culture is one of our biggest challenges. In fact we only listen for an average of 17 seconds before wanting to jump in with a comment.

The most important lesson I have learned (and am still learning) as a parent of three teenagers is that listening, and truly being present while you are listening, is one of greatest gifts you can give your children. What were your teen years like? How has that experience informed your parenting?

Next Week: Can Self-Control be Taught?

This Week’s Recipe: Truffle Brownies from Bon Appetit (Reprinted from the Bainbridge Island Review )

I found this recipe today – I haven’t tried it, but I’m putting it out there for all you chocolate lovers. Enjoy!

truffle brownies 117

Truffle Brownies

  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray
  • 12 ounces bittersweet chocolate (do not exceed 61% cacao), chopped, divided
  • 11 tablespoons (1 stick plus 3 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1 cup walnuts, toasted, coarsely chopped
  • 3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • special equipment

    9×9×2-inch metal baking pan

Preparation
  • Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Line 9×9×2-inch metal baking pan with foil, leaving overhang. Spray foil with nonstick vegetable oil spray. Combine 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate and butter in medium metal bowl. Set bowl over saucepan of simmering water and stir until chocolate and butter are melted and smooth. Remove bowl from over water and cool chocolate mixture until lukewarm, 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Whisk sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, and salt in large bowl to blend. Whisk in chocolate mixture. Stir in flour, then chopped toasted walnuts. Transfer batter to prepared baking pan. Bake brownies until tester inserted into center comes out with moist crumbs attached, 26 to 28 minutes. Transfer pan to cooling rack and let brownies cool completely.
  • Bring cream to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat. Add remaining 6 ounces chocolate to hot cream and let stand 5 minutes to soften, then whisk until melted and smooth. Pour chocolate ganache over brownie sheet in pan and spread to cover completely. Let stand at cool room temperature until topping is set, about 4 hours. DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and store at room temperature.
  • Using foil as aid, lift brownie sheet from pan. Fold down foil edges. Using large sharp knife, cut brownie sheet into 25 squares, wiping knife with hot moist cloth after each cut. Arrange brownies on platter and serve.
  • The author recommends a sprinkle of sea salt for glamour and extra flavor.

Nurture Shock: Chapter Two – The Lost Hour

This is a great chapter chock full of information about sleep and how important it is to the developing brain. I agree with it all. But what affected me the most is the research about the teenage brain.

All kids are affected by sleep loss, but the teenage brain presents a special challenge. During puberty the biological clock does a “phrase shift” that keeps adolescents up later. No surprise here – all three of our kids are night owls. Made it challenging when we had to get up early the next morning, yet felt compelled to stay awake to be “present” for the kids. I didn’t realize that adolescents produce melatonin on a different schedule than pre-adololescents and adults. When it gets dark outside our brains produce melatonin which makes us sleepy. But not the case for adolescents. Their brain doesn’t release melatonin for another 90 minutes so they may go to bed early but lay awake unable to fall asleep. When their alarm clocks go off their brains are apparently still releasing melatonin which can cause them to fall back asleep or nod off in first period. So now I have a greater appreciation for my son’s typical response to my question, “How was school?” His reply? “Not sure, I fell asleep in first period!”

I personally think the research is so compelling that all middle and high schools should shift their start times to accommodate the teenage brain. And driving to school half asleep is another good reason. A recent study in Texas showed a correlation between later start times and fewer accidents among teens. Our school district took the plunge several years ago and rolled back the start times for the middle school and high school to 8:45 am. Other school districts around the state and around the country have done the same. The authors highlight Edina, Minnesota, an affluent suburb of Minneapolis where they moved the start time from 7:25 to 8:30 am. SAT scores improved and overall the students reported higher levels of motivation and lower levels of depression. “In short, an hour more of sleep improved student’s quality of life”.

In a national study researchers at the University of Kentucky found that sleep decreases each year during high school. In their first year, 60% of kids got at least eight hours of sleep on average. But by the second year it was down to 30%. What’s most interesting to me is that their moods were equally affected,  “. . . dropping below 8 hours doubled the rate of clinical-level depression.”

While these numbers are stunning and should rock the foundation of every school board in the country, for various reasons change has been very slow – 85% of our public high schools start before 8:15 am, and 35% start before 7:30 am. This is a good time to mention The Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture, a phenomenal grass roots effort that has sparked a national conversation about the ‘pressures faced by American school children and their teachers in our achievement obsessed public and private education system and culture’ (borrowed from their website).  The Race to Nowhere is a call to action asking all of us to question the status quo in education and whether we are on the best path to raising healthy young adults who will eventually become contributing citizens. Please check out their website and see the film when it comes to your community.

This chapter also highlights the little mentioned link between lack of sleep and obesity, a national epidemic among our children. It’s not just fast food, lack of exercise and video games – it’s sleep, too.

Next week – Chapter 3: Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race

This week’s recipe:

I love chicken soup and currently I have two favorites:  The Barefoot Contessa has a great one but her book is already on everyone’s shelf. Greg Atkinson, a Pacific Northwest chef has possibly an even better recipe in his cook book West Coast Cooking. Enjoy!!

Organic Chicken Noodle Soup

Makes 6 servings.

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 medium organic onion, peeled and cut into small dice (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 large organic carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
1 medium stalk organic celery, cut into small dice
2 tablespoons flour
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or grated on a Microplane grater (about 1 teaspoon)
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
8 cups homemade chicken broth, or store-bought organic broth
1 pound organic free-range chicken breast meat, cooked and shredded into 1-inch pieces
2 cups (about 4 ounces) egg noodles
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon kosher salt, or to taste

1. Heat the oil in a large stockpot and sauté the onion, carrot, and celery until soft and just beginning to color, about 5 minutes. Stir in the flour, garlic, thyme, pepper, and nutmeg and sauté for 1 minute longer.

2. Stir in the chicken broth and bring the soup to a boil. Cook until the vegetables are just tender, about 12 minutes.

3. Stir in the egg noodles and the cooked chicken meat, and cook until the noodles are tender, about 8 minutes. Just before serving, stir in the parsley and salt, to taste.