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New brain map may highlight roots of trouble
By Gareth Cook, Globe Staff, 5/1/2001
Scientists have thought for decades that the roots of many mental
imbalances could be traced to warps in the peaks and valleys of a child's
growing brain. But progress has been slow because nobody knows precisely
what the geography is supposed to look like.
Now McLean Hospital in Belmont is joining in a new nationwide study that
promises to give researchers what they have long wanted - a detailed
atlas of the brain's first 18 years of development, akin to the doctor's
charts that show the normal height ranges of children. Such a map, made
possible by safer, more refined scanning technologies, will eventually
allow scientists to spot subtle differences in troubled children.
''It's a very important study,'' said Kurt Fischer, a specialist in child
development at Harvard University who is not involved in the work.
''There is no good data on what real, living brains look like.''
The $16 million brain atlas project, set to begin recruiting volunteers
this month, is part of a sweeping reevaluation of the young mind that
could bring dramatic changes in mental health care, education, and
Scientists once thought that most of the brain's wiring was finished by
puberty. Several years ago, there was a surge of interest in the crucial
first three years of life, with some enthusiasts suggesting that
listening to Mozart would help young brains.
But recently, neuroscientists have been showing that the brain
dramatically remodels itself well into the teenage years - creating
faster connections in some places, and pruning other regions down.
It now appears, for example, that the frontal cortex, which inhibits
impulses and weighs the future consequences of actions, does not fully
develop until at least the late teens. This could help explain why normal
teens are impulsive and moody - and why some cross the line to violence.
Bruce Price, the chief of neurology at McLean, said the technology has
advanced enough that it makes sense to start searching for clues in the
brains of the students behind school shootings.
''We need to study the people who have committed these crimes,'' Price
said. ''The time has come to start using this information to shape public
health and social policy.''
Technicians at scanning centers in Boston, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and
other locations around the country are identifying a population of more
than 500 volunteers - the largest sample ever - that reflects the racial
and socioeconomic mix of the country. Once the scanning begins, later in
the year, the images will be sent to McGill University in Montreal, which
will extract size and volume measurements.
McLean Hospital will be the heart of the statistical mapping operation,
turning the flood of data into precise three-dimensional maps. In these
maps, researchers hope to catch the first comprehensive look at how
nature's most powerful thinking machine blossoms.
''In a living child, you can actually see order coming from chaos,'' said
Nick Lange, who is the director of McLean's Laboratory for Statistical
Neuroimaging. Lange said the work will be done using magnetic resonance
imaging, a technology that has been around for decades but can discern
far more detail now because of better machines and better techniques.
Unlike other scanning methods, MRI does not expose the patient to any
radiation. That means, Lange said, the researchers can now follow a group
of people, scanning them regularly as they get older without any health
McLean will receive $1 million for its work, which is sponsored by the
National Institute for Mental Health and two other members of the
National Institutes for Health.
Along with the scanning, the volunteers will be taking batteries of tests
that measure a wide range of emotional and intellectual abilities. When
the study is complete, psychologists will be able, for example, to see if
the better readers have different brain structures, or if empathy grows
as certain brain regions develop.
Neuroscientists said that the project represents a new direction for the
field, which has focused much of its effort on discovering why the brain
breaks down. The project will indeed yield insights into a host of
debilitating maladies, but it also will give scientists a way to study
the ways that the brain succeeds.
Scientists expect to find that there are particular ages when students
are particularly apt to learn certain types of skills, such as music or
They also expect the study to unveil the tremendous creative reserves
within the brain that give it the ability to bounce back after setbacks.
Teenagers go through bouts of moodiness, for example, but the same brain
chemistry behind their emotional intensity also allows them to learn
quickly and make sense of a a bafflingly complex social world.
Although adolescence brings many frustrations, Fischer said, it also
brings news ways to deal with them. ''There is also a big increase in
humor,'' he said.
Gareth Cook can be reached by e-mail at
This story ran on page 1 of the Boston Globe on 5/1/2001. © Copyright
2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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