Brain scans of over 11,600 children have revealed that over 1 in 5 kids may have some kind of “unexpected abnormalities” in the brain. Many of these abnormalities may simply be anatomical variants and should be no cause for concern, the researchers say. However, potentially life-threatening conditions were found in 1 in 500 children, while up to 1 in 25 children had brain abnormalities that were comparatively minor but still warrant further medical attention.
These findings come from a new study recently published in JAMA Neurology by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco. The team carried out brain MRI scans on 11,810 children between the ages of 9 and 10 from 21 study sites across the US, with 11,679 giving results that were able to be interpreted.
“From examining brain MRIs in this large, demographically diverse sample of U.S. kids, now we know with good statistical reliability how common various brain abnormalities are in the general population,” Leo Sugrue, study author and associate professor in the UC San Francisco Department of Radiology and director of the Laboratory for Precision Neuroimaging, said in a statement.
Within this demographically diverse sample of children, they found that 21.1 percent of the scans contained unexpected abnormalities, which the study calls "incidental findings". Many of these will be simple anatomical variants, such as an unusually shaped brain structure, that pose no apparent risk to health and shouldn’t be overly concerning. However, around 4 percent of the scans showed incidental findings which the researchers say warrant further non-urgent or urgent medical tests.
A tiny fraction of the brain scans revealed potentially life-threatening conditions. For example, one child underwent a brain scan for this study and the researchers noted signs of worrying abnormality. The boy is now in recovery after undergoing successful surgery to remove a brain tumor. As per the study's press release, one of his parents wrote on Facebook: “I’m forever grateful because his participation in this study probably saved his life.”
All of the kids in this study are part of a 10-year longitudinal research project, and will undergo further brain scans every 2 years to understand how the brain changes from childhood through adolescence to early adulthood. Known as the ABCD Study, it's the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the US.
The crux of the study is to see how a person’s lifestyle and the environment – from pollution and social media use – influences brain development during this crucial point of life. They will also investigate whether this correlates with any behavioral, social, and educational outcomes. In regards to this newly published study, the team will look to see whether any structural brain abnormalities develop as they age.
“The years from adolescence to early adulthood are a time of rapid social, cognitive, and emotional development, and a period when many psychiatric disorders and learning disabilities first present,” explains Sugrue. “Brain changes during this period are suspected to influence risk for disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and addiction. However, to date our understanding of those relationships has been limited by a lack of high-quality longitudinal data, a gap that the ABCD study aims to fill.”