Brain Network Organization Changes Influence Improvements in Executive Function

Danielle Bassett

Danielle Bassett, Eduardo D. Glandt Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor in the departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, recently collaborated with colleagues from the Perelman School of Medicine on a study that looks at how brain networks change as children develop into adolescence. Bassett’s previous work on applying network science principles to neuroscience has suggested that the organization of these networks helps lead to “cognitive control” and that they reorganize as children age, improving executive function.

In a new paper published in Current Biology, Bassett and her colleagues delve deeper into the network changes that lead to this improvement.

“The work,” Bassett says, “significantly extends our understanding of the role of modular network organization in development, and its importance for executive function.”

As children age into adolescence and on into young adulthood, they show dramatic improvements in their ability to control impulses, stay organized, and make decisions. Those executive functions of the brain are key factors in determining outcomes including their educational success, and whether they will use recreational drugs, or develop psychiatric illness. In a new study, published this week in Current Biology, a team of University of Pennsylvania researchers report newly mapped changes in the network organization of the brain that underlie those improvements in executive function. The findings could provide clues about risks for certain mental illnesses.

The study, led by Ted Satterthwaite, MD, an assistant professor of Psychiatry, Danielle Bassett, PhD, an associate professor of Bioengineering, and Graham Baum, a neuroscience doctoral student supervised by Satterthwaite and Bassett, reveals that in adolescence the brain networks becomes increasingly divided into distinct parts, called modules. Modules are parts of a network that are tightly connected to each other, and less connected to other parts of the network. Modules are thought to support specialized brain functions like movement, sensation, vision, and more complicated tasks like executive function. The new evidence shows that the degree to which executive function develops during this period in part depends on the degree to which these modules are present.

“We were surprised to find that the development of structural brain networks involved both more distinct modules but also more global integration across the brain,” Satterthwaite said.

The findings suggest that these modular sub-networks are critical for the development of complex cognition and behavior. They could also lead to the identification of biomarkers of abnormal brain development that could predict a person’s risk for psychosis and major mood disorders.

Continue reading at www.pennmedicine.org.