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The teenage brain is no longer a ‘grey area’

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While the saying “your teenage years are the best years of your life” may not necessarily be true for us all, research shows that this may perhaps be a fact in terms of our brain power and cognitive performance.

For many years, scientists have accepted the fact that grey matter volume and cortical thickness in the brain decline during adolescence, and that a larger brain volume shows a strong correlation with better cognitive performance. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that there is a dramatic improvement in cognitive performance from childhood to young adulthood, the time during which brain volume and cortical thickness decline.

It is somewhat surprising that there is a dramatic improvement in cognitive performance from childhood to young adulthood…

Grey matter is tissue found in the outer layers of the brain, which plays a vital role in processing information required for muscle control, speech, decision making, emotions, memory, and sensory perception – namely how things are heard or seen. A recent study published by Penn Medicine revealed new information about grey matter, such that while brain volume does indeed decrease from childhood to young adulthood, grey matter density increases. These findings perhaps help to explain the reasons behind improvements in cognitive performance during adolescence. This study also revealed that despite females having a lower brain volume, proportionate to their smaller size, they have a larger grey matter density which shines light on their comparable abilities.

The study was led by Ruben Gur and Raquel Gur,  professors of Psychiatry, Neurology and Radiology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Efstathios Gennatas, a doctoral student of neuroscience working in the Brain Behaviour Laboratory at Penn.

…while brain volume does indeed decrease from childhood to young adulthood, grey matter density increases…

Ruben Gur explains that the study helped to solve two paradoxes which have been “lingering in a field for decades”, and that the findings may better explain the extent and intensity of changes in mental life and behaviour which take place during adolescence. “We now have a richer, fuller concept of what happens during brain development,” said Gur.

The study consisted of magnetic resonance imaging of 1,189 young people, aged between 8 and 23 to evaluate age-related effects on multiple measures of regional grey matter – including that of grey matter volume and density, as well as cortical thickness. This allowed researchers to study the brain at different ages and observe how a child’s brain differs to that of an adult, providing a better understanding of the relationship between structure and cognitive performance.

These findings can also be used to help aid understanding the effects of cognitive disorders…

The findings of the study reveal that grey matter density may be as important as volume and cortical thickness for understanding improvement in cognitive performance. These findings in healthy people can also be used to help aid understanding the effects of disorders in males and females during the transition from childhood to early adulthood.

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