Researchers develop a reference model for the development of the human brain

Radboudumc researchers have developed a set of growth charts for the brain. These “brain charts” provide reference models for brain development and aging throughout the human lifespan, based on a very large data set. These models can be used to make personalized predictions for each individual regarding many brain conditions, and therefore have high clinical potential. Software tools and templates are available online. The book was published in eLife.

“Almost everyone is familiar with the growth charts used to measure child development, for example the growth charts developed by the World Health Organization,” explains André Marquand, researcher in Radboudumc’s cognitive neuroscience department. “These models are used worldwide to assess the development of children, for example by plotting body weight or height against age. Pediatricians plot the development of an individual child against the variation in population provided by these growth curves, in order to detect, for example, developmental delay.”

Researchers are now providing the same for the brain: a growth chart to assess brain development and aging, not just for children, but across the lifespan, from two to 100 years old. “We analyzed high-resolution MRI images from nearly 60,000 people on 80 MRI scans all over the world,” says Saige Rutherford, PhD student and first author. “We used volume measurements of different brain structures or thickness of the cerebral cortex at different ages and created growth curves for each region of the brain. In this way, we have created a fine-grained atlas of the human brain across the lifespan.”

Alterations in brain structure

These models allow for individual-person level predictions of brain growth and aging, relative to population norms. Marquand: “It provides a benchmark for mapping variation between individuals and can be used to help understand many different brain conditions, such as ADHD, schizophrenia, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”

These models have many uses: they can be useful for early detection of alterations in brain structure that could indicate the emergence of a mental disorder. Models can assess whether a region of the brain is thicker or thinner than it should be for an individual compared to the average for that life stage. But it is also useful for the stratification of mental disorders. For example, finding commonalities between individuals that might describe different subtypes of disorders, or in the future to identify individuals who might respond to certain treatments. In addition, the model makes it possible to follow the progression of the disease over time and also to monitor the effect of a treatment.

brain prints

A reference model for the brain like this was not available before. The models and the software to use them are freely available to the online community. “We use an established software pipeline called ‘Freesurfer’ to measure the volume and thickness of brain structures,” says Marquand. “This pipeline is used by thousands of hospitals around the world, so they can easily get the metrics they need and use our software to determine how a group of their own patients or study participants might be placed. within the population.”

In the near future, Marquand believes the software could be of great use in clinical studies. “If you want to study a new drug for a certain brain condition, for example Alzheimer’s disease, you can use our software to identify subjects, with a particular profile, like early-stage degeneration. It could work as a “fingerprint-based brain” that could make research more efficient by making it easier to spot differences between groups of people. need. “

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Material provided by Radboud University Medical Center. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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