Two recent studies from the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine have discovered some important information regarding the brains of newborns and how they can determine later cognitive development. One study published in 2013, reports that brain scans of infants can indicate some of the same gene variants found in adults suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and autism. One of the study authors, Rebecca Knickmeyer, states, “These results suggest that prenatal brain development may be a very important influence on psychiatric risk later in life.” She added, “This could stimulate an exciting new line of research focused on preventing onset of illness through very early intervention in at-risk individuals.”
The study involved 272 infants who were given an MRI shortly after birth and had their DNA screened for 10 common variations in the seven genes associated with conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and depression. One important finding was the discovery that “brain changes found in adults such as the variation in the APOE gene that is associated with Alzheimer’s disease were very similar to the brain changes in the infants with the same variants.”
Another study from the university released late last year may provide yet more clues as to why some individuals develop cognitive problems later on in life. The research, which was led by the director of the Early Brain Development Program at UNC’s Dept. of Psychiatry, John H. Gilmore, MD, found “white matter microstructure present at birth and that develops after birth predicts the cognitive function of children at ages 1 and 2.”
Dr. Gilmore explained that this was the first study ever done to measure and describe the development of white matter microstructure in children and its relationship to cognitive development. During the study, 685 children had diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) scans done on their brains to identify white matter tracts in the brain as well as to describe the organization and maturation of the tracts.
Researchers concentrated on the 12 white matter fiber tracts that are important to cognitive function and studied their relationship to developing cognitive function and their heritability.
Gilmore said “With a better understanding of these relationships, we ultimately hope to be able to identify children at risk for cognitive problems or psychiatric disorders very early and come up with interventions that can help the brain develop in a way to improve function and reduce risk.”
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