Editors' ChoiceNeurodevelopment

Navigating the map of human cognition

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Science Translational Medicine  28 Sep 2016:
Vol. 8, Issue 358, pp. 358ec156
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aai8225

Successful navigation of everyday life requires the brain to process, integrate, and prioritize information to alter behavior towards specific and dynamic goals—remembering the shopping list, deciding whether to eat a second piece of cake, or solving a complicated math problem. Cognitive control refers to the ability to show the appropriate controlled behavioral response required at each specific moment. Impairment of cognitive control is implicated in a broad range of neuropsychiatric disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia. The cognitive control network (CCN), which includes the frontal, cingulate, and parietal brain cortices, is suggested to function in cognitive control maintenance, but how changes in CCN structure during neurodevelopment affect cognitive control is poorly understood. In a recent publication, Breukelaar and collaborators used structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and cognitive data from 176 participants between 8 to 38 years of age to analyze how changes in gray matter volume in the key nodes of the CCN relate to each other and to changes in cognitive abilities.

Participants underwent MRI analysis and performed a computer-based cognitive battery test across seven major cognitive domains necessary for cognitive control: decision making, working memory, sustained attention, cognitive flexibility, executive function, inhibition, and emotion processing. Two years later, 115 participants returned for a follow-up study using the same protocol. The authors first examined the correlation between CCN gray matter structure with age and cognitive function and then determined if it was sustained over time. They found that CCN gray matter structure was not correlated with age but was associated with cognitive function. Decreases in CCN gray matter in prefrontal and parietal cortices were associated with increased executive function; in parietal and cingulate cortices with information processing; and in the prefrontal cortex with emotional processing.

Although the functional significance of these changes remains to be determined, this study suggests coordination between structural changes and development of functionally connected areas. Future structural and functional connectivity studies could further define the cognitive control circuitry map, potentially revealing dysfunctional patterns in psychiatric disorders, leading to development of better diagnostic tools.

I. A. Breukelaar et al., Cognitive control network anatomy correlates with neurocognitive behavior: A longitudinal study. Hum. Brain Mapp. 10.1002/hbm.23401 (2016). [Full Text]

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