Baby Brain Scans Predict Later Cognitive Development?

By Neuroskeptic | March 1, 2014 6:53 am

The shape of a newborn baby’s brain can predict its later cognitive development, according to a new study from New York neuroscientists Marisa Spann and colleagues.

Here’s the paper: Morphological features of the neonatal brain support development of subsequent cognitive, language, and motor abilities

Now, while the word ‘phrenology‘ gets banded around a lot these days by people who don’t like neuroscience, this study actually sort of fits that description – except instead of ‘bumps on skulls’ it was more ‘bumps on brains’. The authors scanned 48 babies (within 6 weeks of birth) using MRI to obtain an image of brain structure; they then analyzed the shape of each brain using a deformation-based morphology approach.

This revealed areas on each brain that were bigger or smaller than the average newborn brain:


The outputs were a set of local ‘indentations’ and ‘protrusions’… or, one might say, troughs and bumps? Anyway, after being scanned, the babies were followed up for two years and tested every 6 months to measure their developmental functioning in the domains of motor, language, and cognitive skills (using the Bayley-III scale.)

There were significant correlations between brain shape and later development, however interestingly, most of these were negative correlations – that is, infants with a thinner cerebral cortex in each particular area did better:


Here for example you can see results for the cognitive domain at ages 6, 12, 18 and 24 months. There are correlations in many areas, mostly negative (purple blobs), with the exception of some positive (yellow) correlations in the occipital cortex but these areas only predicted performance at 6 months.

So it would seem that in general, ‘less is more’ for many parts of the newborn brain. Which is interesting because in a previous study, as the authors write,

At birth, head circumference as a proxy for brain volume was the strongest (positive) predictor of intelligence at 4 years (Gale et al 2006).

Spann et al don’t seem to have analyzed whole-brain volume, but why would regional cortical thickness be a negative predictor of development? They suggest that it might be a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race type deal:

Slower or more protracted maturation of the brain or brain subregions, that are otherwise growing rapidly specifically in the neonatal period, may support the development and emergence of improved motor, language, and cognitive abilities in later infancy.

However… the sample size wasn’t huge. Although they scanned 48 babies, only 37 had usable MRI data (for the other 11, quality was too poor). And of those, they were only able to get developmental assessments on n=33 at age 6 months, falling to n=18 by 24 months. A decently sized study at the outset, it had become a decidedly small one by the end.

And I do worry (as I always seem to these days) about head movement. It’s hard enough to get adults to lie still in an MRI scanner. With babies it’s all but impossible which is why the authors used the special motion-resistant T2 PROPELLER sequence. However, they still had to throw out about a quarter of their scans, perhaps for excessive motion.

Could the scans they included have been degraded by movement, perhaps correlated with baby temperament and later behaviour, and could this have confounded the deformation-based morphology? Spann et al say that “the similarity transformation of an infant brain to a template is robust to the presence of noise in the imaging data” but it would have been nice to see some quantitative checks of that assumption.

ResearchBlogging.orgSpann, M., Bansal, R., Rosen, T., & Peterson, B. (2014). Morphological features of the neonatal brain support development of subsequent cognitive, language, and motor abilities Human Brain Mapping DOI: 10.1002/hbm.22487

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  • iucns

    Interesting post and right on the pulse of time!

    However, I find the phrenology reference a bit overstated.
    Another important feature of the above approach, though
    established in hindsight, is that there was no statistical or
    logical relation between ‘bumps on the skull’ and actual
    cognitive abilities or faculties. For the brain though, we
    have a slightly more elaborate (if incomplete) picture.

    Also, I take your point regarding head movements in
    infants and I don’t know about the particulars of this study.
    Nonetheless, babies are typically scanned while asleep
    which should reduce the potential for head movement
    (depending on the sleep phase, etc.) considerably.

  • Joe Bathelt

    The initial sleep phase of infants at their regular sleeping time is actually very deep and sleep paralysis occurs quickly. Therefore, the argument that there is a large difference in movement does not seem to apply. However, the influence of signal attenuation may be different, because the infant head does not fit the adult head coil. However, I’m not aware of any studies that systematically investigated this.

  • Wouter

    Ah lovely, FDR-corrected p-values …
    One can safely interpret this as: “after Bonferroni correction, there were approximately no significant effects, so we looked for another correction method”.
    I’m starting to get less fond of neuroscientific studies that postulate a hypothesis in terms of “we’re gonna throw some people in a MRI-machine and see what turns up”.

  • Odin Matanguihan

    I wonder if it’s the same as the MRI scan I had before. The one I had was pretty noisy and is bound to scare infants.

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  • Crash

    Bonferroni correction is incredibly rare in fMRI, particularly whole-brain analysis. FDR has long been one of the “go-to” methods alongside random field theory and cluster correction. Could they have done other things to ensure better measurement? Sure, but not every paper has to be definitive. The follow-up paper or the replications will likely find other nuances within this same story to extend the landscape of what we are just starting to understand.

  • Roy Dempsey

    Well, the best way of interpreting these data may be that the smaller areas at birth had less of a role over time in inhibiting/interacting with the other areas of the brain (even though the other areas were largely unchanged, they would have more net activity as a result of the smaller areas interacting less with them and/or inhibiting the larger areas less (i.e. via Inhibitory, Feedback loops, and possibly less GABA-type neurotransmitter activity). These are the extensions of the study I would follow up on if I was associated with this research… Less cannot be more in a strictly overall sense alone in regards to human cortical functions (and other brain functions too) – as overall brain mass increases in average size and interconnectedness clearly is what was favoured in human evolution, especially of intelligence, overall cognition and self-conscious awareness. This study may prove to be of some importance in the longterm mapping and elucidation as pursued by the Human Brain Project and similar studies to try to get a handle on how human consciousness arose as an emergent phenomena from strictly underlying non-quantum mechanical physical/physiological substrates.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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