Youth with superior IQ are distinguished by how fast the thinking part of their brains thickens and thins as they grow up, researchers at the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have discovered. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans showed that their brain’s outer mantle, or cortex, thickens more rapidly during childhood, reaching its peak later than in their peers — perhaps reflecting a longer developmental window for high-level thinking circuitry. It also thins faster during the late teens, likely due to the withering of unused neural connections as the brain streamlines its operations. Drs. Philip Shaw, Judith Rapoport, Jay Giedd and colleagues at NIMH and McGill University report on their findings in the March 30, 2006 issue of Nature.
While most previous MRI studies of brain development compared data from different children at different ages, the NIMH study sought to control for individual variation in brain structure by following the same 307 children and teens, ages 5-19, as they grew up. Most were scanned two or more times, at two-year intervals. The resulting scans were divided into three equal groups and analyzed based on IQ test scores: superior (121-145), high (109-120), and average (83-108).
The researchers found that the relationship between cortex thickness and IQ varied with age, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, seat of abstract reasoning, planning, and other “executive” functions. The smartest 7-year-olds tended to start out with a relatively thinner cortex that thickened rapidly, peaking by age 11 or 12 before thinning. In their peers with average IQ, an initially thicker cortex peaked by age 8, with gradual thinning thereafter. Those in the high range showed an intermediate trajectory (see below). While the cortex was thinning in all groups by the teen years, the superior group showed the highest rates of change.
The observed differences are consistent with findings from functional magnetic resonance imaging, showing that levels of activation in prefrontal areas correlates with IQ, note the researchers. They suggest that the prolonged thickening of prefrontal cortex in children with superior IQs might reflect an “extended critical period for development of high-level cognitive circuits.” Although it’s not known for certain what underlies the thinning phase, evidence suggests it likely reflects “use-it-or-lose-it” pruning of brain cells, neurons, and their connections as the brain matures and becomes more efficient during the teen years.
NIMH Press Office
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