Functional brain development in human


A domain-general framework for interpreting data on human functional brain development is presented. Assumptions underlying the general theory and predictions derived from it are discussed. Developmental functional neuroimaging data from the domains of face processing, social cognition, word learning and reading, executive control, and brain resting states are used to assess these predictions. Finally, potential criticisms of the framework are addressed and challenges for the future presented.


  • Cortex;
  • Interactive Specialization;
  • Maturation;
  • Functional MRI

1. Introduction

One of the fundamental questions in neurobiology concerns how different regions of the mammalian cerebral cortex develop their specificity. This question is particularly important for human cognitive neuroscience were regions of cortex collaboratively support “higher” cognitive functions not seen in most other mammals, and in which brain development is very prolonged continuing over the first two decades of postnatal life. This basic question in neurobiology underpins all human adult cognitive neuroscience studies in which particular cognitive functions are localized to areas of cortex, and is also of potential importance to future educational and clinical strategies. Further, relating evidence on the neuroanatomical development of the brain to the remarkable changes in motor, perceptual, and cognitive abilities during the first decade or so of a human life presents a considerable challenge of relevance to the new field of developmental cognitive neuroscience.

As a newly emerging field of science, developmental cognitive neuroscience can appear to students and experts alike as rather fragmentary, with different types of local hypotheses being used to motivate particular sets of studies, and domain or region-specific local theories being used to account for isolated islands of data (often from one lab). With rapid advances in the technology for tracing the genetic and neural basis of typical and atypical cognitive development, many intuitively surprising observations remain unexplained. How are we to come to understand these surprising observations, and to interpret and explain them within a broader context of other findings with different methods and populations?

Interdisciplinary fields such as developmental cognitive neuroscience face a formidable challenge in the development of adequate theories since scientists are required to construct theories that not only cross different levels of observation (such as genetic, neural and behavioural), but that also relate those different levels together in some coherent way. For a variety of reasons that I have discussed elsewhere, I suggest that developmental cognitive neuroscience theories should relate evidence from different levels of observation in terms of one level of explanation.

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