A new study suggests that a quick MRI scan could tell doctors if a child's brain is maturing properly, potentially providing an early warning sign that mental problems are developing.
Researchers say the strategy could turn an ordinary brain scan into a tool similar to the age-old growth charts that tell paediatricians if kids are growing at an appropriate rate.
"It's a way to understand individual differences and make predictions about an individual's neurologic and psychological health," said study co-author Dr Bradley L. Schlaggar. "The earlier you can intervene, the more likely it is that you'll benefit a patient."
Currently, brain scans don't play a major role in the treatment of mental illness, said Schlaggar, an associate professor of developmental neurology at Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children's Hospital.
Technology sometimes fails
It's possible to find a tumour or diagnose a stroke with the help of a brain scan, he said, but the technology almost always fails to reveal any problems in the brain of a person who has a disorder like autism, schizophrenia or epilepsy. "That's vexing," he said, "because you know that something is wrong with the brain, but the report is normal."
In the new study, Schlaggar and colleagues report that they've found a way around this challenge. Using MRI technology that detects which areas of the brain are most active based on their usage of oxygen, they scanned 238 volunteers aged seven to 30. They compiled the results and developed a baseline of what the brains of people should look like as they grow older.
The findings, which are published in the journal Science, could allow doctors to measure whether a patient's brain has matured to the level it should have reached based on his or her age, Schlaggar said.
But if a child's brain isn't as developed as it should be, can doctors do anything about it? Possibly, said Dr Paul R. Carney, chief of pediatric neurology at the University of Florida.
'Design a therapy'
If a seven-year-old child has a frontal lobe that looks like that of a five-year-old, for example, doctors could turn to learning therapies designed to boost that part of the brain, said Carney, who's familiar with the findings.
"Right now, most learning techniques don't speak to a specific brain network," Carney said. "But here, you'd be able to design a therapy and measure the response."
In other words, the brain scans could both diagnose a problem in the brain and help gauge whether a treatment is working.