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Verbal and non-verbal intelligence changes in the teenage brain

Nature volume 479, pages 113116 (03 November 2011) | Download Citation

  • An Addendum to this article was published on 16 May 2012


Intelligence quotient (IQ) is a standardized measure of human intellectual capacity that takes into account a wide range of cognitive skills1. IQ is generally considered to be stable across the lifespan, with scores at one time point used to predict educational achievement and employment prospects in later years1. Neuroimaging allows us to test whether unexpected longitudinal fluctuations in measured IQ are related to brain development. Here we show that verbal and non-verbal IQ can rise or fall in the teenage years, with these changes in performance validated by their close correlation with changes in local brain structure. A combination of structural and functional imaging showed that verbal IQ changed with grey matter in a region that was activated by speech, whereas non-verbal IQ changed with grey matter in a region that was activated by finger movements. By using longitudinal assessments of the same individuals, we obviated the many sources of variation in brain structure that confound cross-sectional studies. This allowed us to dissociate neural markers for the two types of IQ and to show that general verbal and non-verbal abilities are closely linked to the sensorimotor skills involved in learning. More generally, our results emphasize the possibility that an individual’s intellectual capacity relative to their peers can decrease or increase in the teenage years. This would be encouraging to those whose intellectual potential may improve, and would be a warning that early achievers may not maintain their potential.

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This work was funded by the Wellcome Trust. We thank J. Glensman, A. Brennan, A. Peters, L. Stewart, K. Pitcher and R. Rutherford for their help with data collection; and W. Penny for his advice on statistical analyses.

Author information


  1. Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, London WC1N 3BG, UK

    • Sue Ramsden
    • , Fiona M. Richardson
    • , Goulven Josse
    • , Caroline Ellis
    • , Clare Shakeshaft
    • , Mohamed L. Seghier
    •  & Cathy J. Price
  2. Developmental Neurocognition Laboratory, Department of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck College, University of London, London WC1E 7HX, UK

    • Michael S. C. Thomas


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C.J.P. designed and supervised the study. C.J.P. and C.S. recruited the participants. C.S., S.R. and G.J. collected the data. F.M.R., S.R., C.E., M.L.S. and C.J.P. analysed the data. S.R., M.S.C.T. and C.J.P. wrote the manuscript and all authors edited the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Cathy J. Price.

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