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Researchers create brain charts of humans spanning entire lifespan

Indian researchers, from the Consortium on Vulnerability to Externalising Disorders and Addictions [cVEDA] led by scientists from NIMHANS — Bharath Holla from the Department of Integrative Medicine and Vivek Benegal from the Department of Psychiatry — contributed the Indian dataset.

Indian researchers, from the Consortium on Vulnerability to Externalising Disorders and Addictions [cVEDA] led by scientists from NIMHANS — Bharath Holla from the Department of Integrative Medicine and Vivek Benegal from the Department of Psychiatry — contributed the Indian dataset. | Photo Credit: FILE PHOTO

An international team of researchers has created a series of brain charts spanning entire lifespan — from a 15-week-old foetus to a 100-year-old adult — that show how human brains expand rapidly in early life and gradually shrink as they age. 

The charts are the result of a research project spanning six continents and bringing together almost 1,25,000 brain scans (MRIs) from over a 100 different studies. Authored by Richard Bethlehem from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge and Jakob Seidlitz from the Lifespan Brain Institute at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and University of Pennsylvania, the study has been published online in Nature on April 6.

Indian researchers, from the Consortium on Vulnerability to Externalising Disorders and Addictions [cVEDA] led by scientists from NIMHANS — Bharath Holla from the Department of Integrative Medicine and Vivek Benegal from the Department of Psychiatry — contributed the Indian dataset to this collaboration. 

Brain charts of Indian children

Elaborating on the study, Prof. Benegal told The Hindu that one of the major aims of the cVEDA is to develop brain charts of Indian children growing up so as to create a normative model for mapping individual differences at the level of a single subject. This can be used as a biomarker to predict risk of various neurological and psychiatric illnesses (to enable pre-emptive and early treatment), or track the prognosis and response to treatments, he said.

Growth charts are a cornerstone of paediatric healthcare for over 200 years and are in common use in clinics. They are used to monitor the growth and development of children in comparison to their peers. A typical growth chart plots age on the horizontal axis versus height on the vertical axis, but rather than being a single line showing the average growth, it will show a range that reflects the natural variability in height, weight or head circumference. Significant deviations from the normal range usually predict problems in the child’s growth and maturation and are predictive of future health problems, he said. 

“There are no similar reference charts for measuring age-related changes in the human brain. The lack of standardised tools and assessments of brain development and ageing is particularly relevant to the study of psychiatric disorders. While research in neuroscience and psychiatry has discovered significant differences in brain structure, function and psychological functioning between people with and without mental illnesses, these are still at the level of differences between  groups of people with and without the illness,” he explained.

Filling a gap

Dr. Holla said the present study is a major step towards filling this gap. “The cVEDA study, which provided a large number of brain scans of youngsters and young adults from India, to this effort, is one of the larger international neuro-developmental cohort studies, of over 9,000 youngsters from seven sites all over India,” he said.

“Set up through a Newton-Bhabha grant, funded by the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Medical Research Council, UK, the cVEDA follows these young people through their childhood, adolescence and young adulthood to understand how their inherited genetic programming is moderated by their exposures to environmental risks through the lifetime to shape their brain maturation and their psychological abilities,” he explained.

The milestones

The brain charts have allowed the researchers to confirm — and in some cases, show for the first time — developmental milestones that have previously only been hypothesised, such as at what age the brain’s major tissue classes reach peak volume and when specific regions of the brain reach maturity. “We hope the charts will become a routine clinical tool similar to how standardised paediatric growth charts are used,” he said.


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Printable version | May 22, 2022 4:14:43 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/researchers-create-brain-charts-of-humans-spanning-entire-lifespan/article65315494.ece