Unlocking the Mysteries of the Adolescent Brain

Kristie Whitaker, MD


May 12, 2017

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Hello. I'm Kristie Whitaker. I'm a researcher at the University of Cambridge and I'm also a member of the NeuroScience in Psychiatry Network. We are a consortium of researchers in Cambridge and University College London who are interested in understanding why teenagers are particularly at risk for their first episode of depression or psychosis.

We have a cohort of 2000 young people between the ages of 14 and 24 who have answered huge numbers of questions about their lives. A subset of those (300 young people) have come in for a brain MRI scan.

I'm interested in how brain structure changes as you get older. In particular, I'm interested in how the brain works as a network. You can think about a brain network the same way as an airline network. There are small regional areas that do particularly specialized messages, and there are big hubs, like JFK or Heathrow. The hubs of the brain network receive messages from lots of places and send messages all over the brain.

We found that the hubs of the brain network take the longest to develop through adolescence. We think that these brain regions remain flexible and allow teenagers to learn and respond to the information that they receive. In collaboration with Dr Petra Vértes,[1] we found that gene expression in the hubs of the connectome are associated with genes denoting risk for schizophrenia and also the expression of cells called oligodendrocytes. Oligodendrocytes make myelin. You can think of myelin as cells that fix connections in place, like electrical tape.

Here at ENDO 2017 I am presenting in a session with Dr John Perry,[3] who does genome analysis on hundreds of thousands of participants. When we sent him our list of genes related to adolescent brain development, he reported back to us that those genes are more likely than chance to be found close to genes associated with the onset of puberty.

It is wonderful that converging evidence helps us understand how adolescent brain development is changing and how it might be related to the risk for, and the resilience against, mental-health disorders.


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