THURSDAY, Sept. 9 (HealthDay News) -- 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
pediatricians 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.
It's possible to find a tumor 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 7 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 Sept. 10 issue of
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.
If a 7-year-old child has a frontal lobe that looks like that of
a 5-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.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on
MRI brain scans.
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