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Baby’s Brain Development Mimics Evolution

July 16, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Anyone who’s been around infants knows how quickly they change. Well, no wonder. It turns out, say researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, that infants and children compress a few millennia of  ape-to-human evolution into a few years of brain development.

The researchers, from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, noticed this while looking into something entirely different: the long-term effects of premature birth on brain development. They published their findings online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

First author Jason Hill, an MD/PhD student, compared MRI brain scans of 12 full-term infants to scans from 12 healthy young adults.

He and the other researchers found that the cerebral cortex—the wrinkled area on the brain’s surface that’s responsible for higher mental functions—grows unevenly. As the brain matures, every region of the cortex expands. But one quarter to one third of the regions expand twice as much as the other cortical areas.

“Through comparisons between humans and macaque monkeys, my lab previously showed that many of these high-growth regions are expanded in humans as a result of recent evolutionary changes that made the human brain much larger than that of any other primate,” said senior author David Van Essen, PhD. “The correlation isn’t perfect, but it’s much too good to put down to chance.”

Dr. Van Essen is Edison professor and head of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. He was quoted in a university news release.

The high-growth areas are linked to advanced mental functions such as language and reasoning. Dr. Van Essen speculated that physical growth in these areas may be delayed so that they can be shaped by early life experiences.

Terrie Inder, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics and another study author, offered another possible explanation. She noted that infant brain size is limited by the need to pass through the mother’s pelvis at birth and suggested that the brain therefore must prioritize.

“Vision, for example, is a brain area that is important at birth so an infant can nurse and learn to recognize his or her parents,” Dr. Inder said. “Other areas of the brain, less important very early in life, may be the regions that see greater growth as the child matures.”

The researchers are now conducting similar scans of premature babies at birth and years later. “Preterm births have been rising in recent years, and now 12 percent of all babies in the United States are born prematurely,” Dr. Inder said. “Until now, though, we were very limited in our ability to study how premature birth affects brain development because we had so little data on what normal brain development looks like.”

Related seminar: Neuro & Musculoskeletal Imaging (will be released soon; available for order now)

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