Understanding Brain Structure in Teenage Years


Changes in adolescent brain structure are potentially associated with the onset of mental health disorders.

Kirstie Whitaker, PhD, University of Cambridge, told MD Magazine that as part of a consortium, The NeuroScience in Psychiatry Network, a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and University College London, her team is interested in answering the question of why so many teenagers experience the first episode of psychosis, depression, or a couple of other mental disorders in and around their late teenage years.

Whitaker believes that since their brains are continuing to develop, it’s important to think about the brain as a network, and how different parts of the brain are connecting to each other and might be maturing, as they get older.

They created structural brain networks using MRI, and linked up data with an openly available resource from the Allen Institute for Brain Science led by Dr. Petra Vertes to really understand what’s happening in these brain regions. Whitaker said that Vertes looked at the gene expression in donated brains and brains that had been investigated in about 1000 different points around the cortex. They wanted to see how those gene expressions were different in those different parts of the brain.

The team learned that the hubs they had investigated using real living, breathing teenagers (14-24-year-olds) were related to genes associated with schizophrenia. Whitaker’s team invited 2000 participants to answer questions, and 300 participants completed MRI.

While they initially believed that by the age of 24 everyone would be pretty solid and there wouldn’t be many brain changes going on, that’s not what they found. Instead, the brain continues to change all the way through that age range. Based on this finding, the team plans to follow up on all the participants longitudinally.

According to Whitaker, what they really wanted to understand is what typical development looks like in order to investigate where things might go wrong and what leaves teenagers particularly susceptible to these mental health disorders.

Whitaker explained that they know early childhood maltreatment is a huge environmental risk factor for mental health disorders. They also know there are some genetic risk factors for mental health disorders such as schizophrenia. But additional work from the University of Cambridge looked at the protective factors of teenage friendships. “What we’re really interested in looking at is there an age, a particular point in adolescence that allows us to effectively support people to keep them or push them back onto a normal developmental trajectory.”

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