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Intelligence and the teenage brain

Intelligence and the teenage brain

Birkbeck researchers at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, together with a team at the UCL Institute of Neurology, have used brain imaging techniques to verify that intelligence changes in the teenage years. Previously, it was thought that intelligence stabilises by late childhood.

Teenagers’ verbal and nonverbal abilities were tested at 13 and then again at age 17. Remarkably, verbal and nonverbal IQ scores changed by as much as 20 points over this period. (IQ has an average of 100 and a normal range is from 85 to 115). Importantly, structural changes in specific regions of the brain were correlated with the IQ changes. Changes in verbal ability were associated with more grey matter in an area activated by the mouth movements involved in producing speech. Changes in nonverbal ability were associated with more grey matter in an area activated by finger movements.

While much of the brain is involved in solving reasoning tasks (hence the idea of ‘general’ intelligence), the results of the study point to the intriguing idea that the plasticity of sensory and motor skills may place limits on teenagers’ verbal and nonverbal skills.

“The IQ data don’t yet tell us whether these changes come from environmental effects – say choosing to study Maths classes or English classes – or from the unfolding of a child’s genetic potential, or from both,” said Professor Michael Thomas, Director of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Birkbeck. “However, the brain data tell us that the changes are real. The findings demonstrate how crucial the teenage years are from an educational point of view.”

The Centre for Educational Neuroscience was set up in 2008 between Birkbeck College, University College London, and the Institute of Education as a focus of world expertise in applying neuroscience to education. The study was led by Professor Cathy Price at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, at the UCL Institute of Neurology, Queen Square.

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Published: 19 October 2011