If you think it's tough to coax a child to stop fidgeting while getting a haircut, imagine asking a youngster to be immobile for repeated five-minute periods -- and to take language and number tests at the same time. That's what researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis were up against when they wanted to obtain brain images from 17 children and teen-agers to learn about language development.
All but two kids passed the squirm test, suggesting that an advanced imaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can be used to study the developing brain. The findings also bring hope that neurosurgeons can soon use fMRI as a nonintrusive way to identify language regions in youngsters' brains that need to be avoided during brain surgery. And the findings suggest that children already use the same side of the brain to handle language that most adults use.
Collections of neurons in certain areas of the brain allow us to speak and understand language. These areas occur in both sides, or hemispheres, of the brain. But most adults rely primarily on areas in the middle of the left hemisphere for language. The same appeared to be true in the subjects studied by neuroradiologist Benjamin C. P. Lee, M.D., and his colleagues at the medical school. "We found that language was lateralized to the left hemisphere even in children as young as 7 years old," said Lee, an associate professor of pediatrics and of radiology.
He is lead author of the study published in the February 1999 issue of the Journal of Child Neurology. E. Mark Haacke, Ph.D., professor of radiology, was principal investigator for the study.
Lee became determined to evaluate fMRI in children after observing how scared
and confused many of his patients with epilepsy became during the traditional
test to evaluate language function. These children have a form of epilepsy
resulting from lesions that disrupt electrical pathways in the brain. Removing
Contact: Barbra Rodriguez
Washington University in St. Louis