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Brain size is a lot like shoe size. It doesn't correlate with height, weight or even IQ, though boys tend to have larger brains (and feet) than girls. This lack of proportional comparison coupled with the fact that, like fingerprints, brains are unique, has created barriers to the better understanding of brain development. But recent imaging technology advances that factor out individual differences, as well as tools that automate data collection and quantitation, are allowing researchers to construct a detailed picture of the growing brain.
One such scientist is Judith Rapoport, director of the child psychiatry branch at the National Institute of Mental Health. Rapoport has marshaled her forces to track long-term changes in brain anatomy in the largest prospective study ever attempted of normal and abnormal children. One decade and thousands of scans later, she and her collaborators are reporting some unexpected findings that could have implications for treating and diagnosing children suffering from debilitating psychoses.
Rapoport says she feels unusually fortunate to be working in the National Institutes of Health's intramural program, where she has the luxury of time to establish the essential norms to understand brain development. In fact, Rapoport says that being at the NIH, where her projects have been afforded consistent funding, allows her to conduct research that can take years before there is a payoff.
STARTING YOUNG Collaborating with researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute, Rapoport has been studying brain anatomy and development in children 4 to 20 years old, ages that have been traditionally understudied and under-appreciated, she says. …