New brain scanning technique can measure child development

Between the ages of 0 to 3, children's brains develop most rapidly, creating the vital brain connections or wiring that is critical to later learning, social skills and impulse control. That's one of the main reasons why it's important to invest early in a child's healthy development. If we miss this opportunity to properly "wire the brain," we may never get another chance in a child's lifetime. 

Now a new brain scanning technique promises to measure the actual maturity of a human brain, based on the connections that have been formed. In a federally funded study, the technique was able to determine with a fair measure of accuracy to differentiate between child and adult brains and gauge where the individual stood on a trajectory of normal brain development. The results, which were published Friday in the journal Science, were heralded as a major breakthrough. 

The Washington Post covered the new technique last week, observing that it "might be useful for testing whether children are maturing normally and for gauging whether teenagers are grown-up enough to be treated as adults." Read the full story here. It might also be used to test for autism or other problems related to brain development, which would help ensure that children who need it receive critical early intervention that can make a tremendous difference.

The technique uses magnetic resonance imaging -- not radiation -- so it is considered safe for use on children. We wrote about a similar brain scanner developed by researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences in May. I'm not sure how the two methods are different. 

Though this kind of technology is brand new, there is already worry that it may be misused. We know that all children develop at their own pace -- even those with perfectly healthy brains -- but competitive parents may demand to see brain scans of their children in order to compare them with their peers. And what if the scans are used as a litmus test for admission to challenging academic programs or colleges?