Published: 29-01-2014 00:00 | Updated: 14-03-2014 15:38

Brain imaging predicts cognitive development in children

Working memory capacity, which is the ability to keep relevant information in mind, have an impact on school performance in children. A new study from Karolinska Institutet now shows that brain imaging can be used to predict future cognitive abilities such as the development of the working memory.

The study, which is published in the Journal of Neuroscience and is the first of its kind, give insight into how children's brains and cognitive functions develop, and hold promises for the future practical use of brain imaging. Researchers suggest that the method could be of clinical interest, as the results indicates that developmental brain disorders may be detected in childhood before psychological symptoms can be measured which, in turn, makes it possible to support these children at an earlier stage.

Higher cognitive abilities are crucial for our daily functioning as well as school performance in children. Cognitive abilities increase during childhood and is known to correlate with measures of brain structure and activity. However, is has not been clear whether brain structure only reflects current cognitive function or if it is possible to predict development using brain imaging.

The current study, conducted by Henrik Ullman, Rita Almeida and Torkel Klingberg of Karolinska Institutet, addressed this question by combining Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) measures of brain development with complex pattern recognition methods. 62 healthy children and adolescents between 6 and 20 years of age participated in the study. When participants enrolled, they were assessed with a battery of cognitive tests, including measures of working memory as well as structural MRI sequences and functional MRI where they had to perform a cognitive task in the scanner. The participants were then invited back two years later for a completing the same cognitive tests. The original MRI and cognitive tests gathered two years earlier were then used to predict working memory capacity at the two year follow up.

The results showed that the MRI could to some degree predict the speed of cognitive development which was not possible using the cognitive test battery. In particular, the basal ganglia and thalamus, nuclei located deep in the brain, appeared to be responsible for the cognitive development while cortex correlated with current capacity as measured by the psychological tasks. According to the researchers, future studies must test the technique in clinical groups in order to evaluate its clinical potential. However, they hope that this will be one of many ways that cutting edge neuroscience prove to have practical applications.

The work was supported by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Swedish Research Council, the Swedish Royal Bank Tercentennial Foundation, and the Karolinska Institutet Strategic Neuroscience Program, StratNeuro.

View a press release from the Society of Neuroscience


Structural maturation and brain activity predict future working memory capacity during childhood development.
Ullman H, Almeida R, Klingberg T
J. Neurosci. 2014 Jan;34(5):1592-8