Studying individual differences in human adolescent brain development


Adolescence is a period of social, psychological and biological development. During adolescence, relationships with others become more complex, peer relationships are paramount and social cognition develops substantially. These psychosocial changes are paralleled by structural and functional changes in the brain. Existing research in adolescent neurocognitive development has focused largely on averages, but this obscures meaningful individual variation in development. In this Perspective, we propose that the field should now move toward studying individual differences. We start by discussing individual variation in structural and functional brain development. To illustrate the importance of considering individual differences in development, we consider three sources of variation that contribute to neurocognitive processing: socioeconomic status, culture and peer environment. To assess individual differences in neurodevelopmental trajectories, large-scale longitudinal datasets are required. Future developmental neuroimaging studies should attempt to characterize individual differences to move toward a more nuanced understanding of neurocognitive changes during adolescence.

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Fig. 1: Developmental trajectories for total gray matter volume: ages 7.0–23.3 years old.
Fig. 2: Developmental trajectories for global cortical measures for four different cohorts: Child Psychiatry Branch (pink), Pittsburgh (purple), Neurocognitive Development (blue) and Braintime (green).
Fig. 3: Average and individual trajectories of gray matter in three brain regions.
Fig. 4: SES-by-age interaction in left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and left superior temporal gyrus (STG) volume.
Fig. 5: Negative correlation between SES and brain activity during the viewing of angry faces in early adolescence.


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We thank C. Tamnes and K. Mills for comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript. The authors are funded by the Wellcome Trust (grant to S.J.B.: 104908/Z/14/Z) and the Klaus J. Jacobs Prize from the Jacobs Foundation.

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L.F. and S.J.B. contributed equally to the writing of this Perspective.

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Correspondence to Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

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Foulkes, L., Blakemore, S. Studying individual differences in human adolescent brain development. Nat Neurosci 21, 315–323 (2018).

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