(ORDO NEWS) — We now have a more complete picture than ever of how the brain grows, develops and shrinks throughout our lives – all thanks to a complex database of 123,984 magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans taken from 101,457 people .
These images cover all stages of life, from a 16-week-old fetus to a 100-year-old adult, and could prove to be an invaluable source of information for researchers studying future brain development and disease.
Compiled from more than 100 previous studies, the new brain diagrams – which you can find yourself on the Internet – have been brought to a standard format that can be compared over time, including measurements of white and gray matter, as well as the volume of certain areas of the brain as you age.
“Despite the fact that we know that the brain undergoes many changes throughout a person’s life, there are no standardized tables of brain development,” says neuroscientist Aaron Alexander-Bloch from the University of Pennsylvania.
“Our work is bringing together a huge amount of imaging data that will continue to grow, allowing researchers and eventually clinicians to measure brain development against standard metrics.”
In addition to showing rapid development at an early age and slow decline as we get older, brain diagrams reveal milestones that were previously unnoticed or could only be hypothesized.
For example, the growth rate of gray matter (processing cells) increases rapidly up to the age of six, after which it begins to slow down. The growth of white matter (supporting tissue) peaks shortly before 29 years of age, and in the middle of 30 years of age begins to decrease in volume.
Meanwhile, the volume of gray matter in the subcortex – the part of the brain that controls bodily functions and basic behavior – peaks during adolescence, at an average of 14 and a half years. These are all useful guidelines for future analysis.
One way the charts are used is in the diagnosis and monitoring of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, in which the brain undergoes abnormal changes, as well as a comparative benchmark for healthy brain size and condition at different times in life.
“This should effectively allow the neurologist to answer the question, ‘This area looks atypical, but how atypical?'” says neurologist Richard Bethlehem of the University of Cambridge in the UK.
“Because the tool is standardized, it shouldn’t matter where you do the brain scan – you should still be able to compare them.”
The researchers stress that more data and more improvements will be needed before the database can be used in a clinical setting, but it already offers a lot of useful information for researchers and has been designed to easily add new data.
Putting together this gigantic data set in a standardized form is not something that can be done over a weekend. The team that created the brain map estimated that it took about 2 million hours of computing time to create it.
The next step is to further expand the database, in particular with brain MRI data for socioeconomic and ethnic groups, which are usually underrepresented in studies. Hence the usefulness of charts can only increase.
“We’re still in the extremely early stages of brain diagramming, showing that it’s possible to create such tools by piecing together huge amounts of data,” says Bethlehem.
“Charts are already beginning to provide interesting insights into brain development, and we aim to ensure that in the future, as more data is integrated and diagrams improve, they can become part of everyday clinical practice.”
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