Brain Network Study Shows Why Executive Function Improves as Kids Get Older
The Understood Team
We know that
develops over time. Now, we may have a better idea of why—and how.
As kids grow older, their
executive skills strengthen. They get better at skills like planning, organizing and focusing. A recent study of brain scans shows how this improvement is linked to the specialization of key brain networks.
The study wasfunded by the National Institute of Mental Health and published in Current Biology. Researchers looked at “diffusion” brain scans of 882 young people, ages 8 to 22, in Philadelphia. This type of
MRI scan produces colorful images of brain structures by scanning water molecules.
For instance, the frontoparietal network is active when the brain is making decisions and learning new tasks. The default motornetwork is active when the brain is resting. It also plays a role in “turning off” other brain areas.
This study focused on eight brain networks linked to executive function. Looking at the scans, the researchers found these networks are more specialized, or well-defined, in older kids than in younger kids.
With the younger kids, the networks were merged together. So all brain tissue was connected across networks.
In the older kids, the various brain networks were more distinct, or specialized. There were fewer direct connections between brain tissue in different networks, but more internal connections within networks.
At the same time, the brains of older kids had strong “hub connections.” These linked the specialized networks to each other, and integrated them in the brain.
Specialization has a big impact on executive function, according to the study. Kids with more specialized brain networks score higher on
tests of executive function. This effect is very strong for the frontoparietal and default mode networks. When these networks specialize, kids get a big executive function boost.
“This is some of the best evidence we have that shows that the brain becomes more organized, connected and specialized as it matures, and that this is very important for executive function skills,” says Braaten.
Key Takeaways for Parents
This is an important study for helping us understand
how the brain works. The researchers showed how specialization of brain networks improves brain efficiency. Plus, it’s linked to better executive function. The development of hubs between networks also seems to play a big role in the maturing brain. (It’s important to know that the findings don’t point to any specific intervention that can impact this development, however.)
Although brain networks change as kids age, it doesn’t mean that
executive functioning issues go away. These challenges are lifelong. However, their impact may shift over time. And it’s important to understand that kids’ brains and their abilities when they’re young aren’t set in stone.