New brain research suggests one reason girls mature faster than boys during their teen years.
As people age, their brains reorganize and reduce connections. In this study, scientists examined brain scans from 121 healthy people, aged 4 to 40. It's during this period that the major changes in brain connectivity occur.
The researchers discovered that although the overall number of connections is reduced, the brain preserves long-distance connections important for integrating information. The findings might explain why brain function doesn't decline -- but instead improves -- during this period of connection pruning, according to the research team.
The researchers also found that these changes in brain connections begin at an earlier age in girls than in boys.
"Long-distance connections are difficult to establish and maintain but are crucial for fast and efficient processing," said study co-leader Marcus Kaiser, of Newcastle University, in England.
"If you think about a social network, nearby friends might give you very similar information -- you might hear the same news from different people," Kaiser said in a university news release. "People from different cities or countries are more likely to give you [new] information."
Similarly, some old information in the brain might be redundant, he said. But connecting new information -- like visual input about a person's face with acoustic input about their voice -- is "vital in making sense of the outside world," he said.
Study co-leader Sol Lim, also of Newcastle University, outlined why earlier brain-connection changes in girls might explain why they tend to mature sooner than boys.
"The loss of connectivity during brain development can actually help to improve brain function by reorganizing the network more efficiently," Lim said in the news release.
"[For example], instead of talking to many people at random, asking a couple of people who have lived in an area for a long time is the most efficient way to know your way," Lim said. "In a similar way, reducing some projections in the brain helps to focus on essential information."
The study was published Dec. 19 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about the teen brain.
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