Brain Development Index Created to Advance Early Intervention in Mental Illness

Theodore D. Satterthwaite, M.D., M.A., mental health and brain research expert
Dr. Theodore Satterthwaite

Theodore D. Satterthwaite, M.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, used his 2010 NARSAD Young Investigator Grant to help support research that has generated a brain development index from MRI brain scans. This first-of-its-kind index captures the complex patterns of maturation during normal brain development, making it possible to detect potentially critical early signs of deviation from normal development that may lead to mental illness. The research results were published online in the journal Cerebral Cortex on January 12th.  

This new study is the first to present a comprehensive index for the entire brain during late childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. The study consisted of a sample of 621 participants taking 14 tests analyzing a broad range of cognitive functions including abstraction and mental flexibility, attention, working memory, verbal memory, face memory, spatial memory, language reasoning, nonverbal reasoning, spatial processing, emotion identification and sensorimotor speed. Among its key findings is the consistency in healthy brain development of young people.

The study also examined cognitive performance of outliers―adolescents whose brains developed faster or slower than the normal rates. Early maturers performed significantly better than those with delayed brain development in the speed at which they completed certain tasks. The improved speed of performance indicates increased efficiency in neuronal organization and communication. Slower performance in such tests is a precursor to neuropsychiatric disorders, the researchers report, including adolescent-onset psychosis.

“Our findings suggest that brain imaging via sophisticated MRI scans may be a useful biomarker for the early detection of subtle developmental abnormalities,” said Guray Erus, Ph.D., a Research Associate in the Department of Radiology, and the study’s lead author. “The abnormalities may, in turn, be the first manifestations of subsequent neuropsychiatric problems.”

Read the press release about this research for more information.

Read complete details from this research from the journal Cerebral Cortex.