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Virginia Researchers Still Working to Get Inside Kids' Heads

It's not enough to develop research technology and protocols to delve into the black hole that is young children's brain development: You have to make them sit still for it.

Back in 2012, I told you about a fascinating project gearing up in Roanoke, Va., to track the changes in cognitive and social development of as many as 10,000 members of the community by pairing regular brain scans with analysis of other health and education data. The leaders of the pediatric portion of the Roanoke Brain Study, esteemed early-childhood researchers Sharon Landesman Ramey and her husband, Craig Ramey, had intended to start recruiting the first cohort of 200 to 300 children for the longitudinal study that fall.

They're still waiting.

"We're wanting to be really certain of the protocol," Sharon Ramey told me, but the researchers have also in a sense been waiting for the technology to catch up a bit to their research goals.

"One of the big limits of studying children is putting them in a full-body or even full-head scanner. Kids don't like it even when they will endure it," she said, and even elementary-age kids fidget enough to make getting a large sample for longitudinal study difficult.

Now the team is exploring the use of a different method of brain imaging, functional near-infrared spectroscopy or fNIRS, which uses a specific spectrum of light that is more strongly absorbed by proteins in the blood than in skin, tissue, and bone. The imaging can be used to gauge changes in blood flow in the brain less restrictively than functional magnetic resonance imaging, and has been used to provide more portable measures of potential concussions after sports injuries.

Yet Sharon Ramey said the researchers want to be sure that the research protocols that have been working for adults and teenagers will be appropriate for elementary-school-age and younger children.

"You can have two different science teams collecting fMRI data and they can have ways of interpreting the data that are very different. We've got to get a handle on the methodology," she added—particularly because in the longitudinal study, consistency over years and even decades will be crucial. "We wanted to enroll a cohort [of children] we would stick with."

The team is hoping to finally begin enrolling those students within the year.

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