Scientists have developed a new brain scanning method that could reveal the maturity of a child’s brain, a technique they claim could also help track abnormal brain development and disorders like autism early.

The five-minute scanning technique involves mathematically sifting through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data to form a picture not just of the brain’s structure, but the way its various regions work together.

“The beauty of this approach is that it lets you ask what’s different in the way that children with autism, for example, are off the normal development curve versus the way that children with attention-deficit disorder are off that curve,” said lead researcher Bradley Schlaggar at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis

According to the researchers, the tightest connections in young children’s brains are between areas that are physically near one another. As the brain ages, these connections shift and networks connecting distant regions become the strongest.

To measure these shifts over time, Schlagger and his colleagues used a method called resting state functional connectivity, LiveScience reported.

For their study, the researchers collected five-minute MRI scans from 238 healthy people ages 7 to 30. They ran data on 13,000 functional brain connections through a tool called a support vector machine, which crunched the numbers and selected the 200 connections that best predicted brain maturity.

The result was a single index of the maturity of each person’s brain. After the data were analysed, researchers were able to predict whether subjects were children or adults just from their brain organisation.

Much like a child’s height or weight chart, the data formed a curving line that tracks the average path of normal brain development.

Traditional methods of looking at brain structure alone with an MRI often miss kids with even severe psychiatric disorders, Schlaggar said. That’s because brain structure doesn’t always correlate with psychiatric disease.

Mapping out the brain’s function, on the other hand, can lead to psychiatric insights, the researchers said.

They hoped that their new findings, published online in the journal Science, could be used to create a normal brain growth chart.