White matter maturation profiles through early childhood predict general cognitive ability

Sean C.L. Deoni, Jonathan O’Muircheartaigh, Jed T. Elison, Lindsay Walker, Ellen Doernberg, Nicole Waskiewicz, Holly Dirks, Irene Piryatinsky, Doug C. Dean, N. L. Jumbe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Scopus citations


Infancy and early childhood are periods of rapid brain development, during which brain structure and function mature alongside evolving cognitive ability. An important neurodevelopmental process during this postnatal period is the maturation of the myelinated white matter, which facilitates rapid communication across neural systems and networks. Though prior brain imaging studies in children (4 years of age and above), adolescents, and adults have consistently linked white matter development with cognitive maturation and intelligence, few studies have examined how these processes are related throughout early development (birth to 4 years of age). Here, we show that the profile of white matter myelination across the first 5 years of life is strongly and specifically related to cognitive ability. Using a longitudinal design, coupled with advanced magnetic resonance imaging, we demonstrate that children with above-average ability show differential trajectories of myelin development compared to average and below average ability children, even when controlling for socioeconomic status, gestation, and birth weight. Specifically, higher ability children exhibit slower but more prolonged early development, resulting in overall increased myelin measures by ~3 years of age. These results provide new insight into the early neuroanatomical correlates of cognitive ability, and suggest an early period of prolonged maturation with associated protracted white matter plasticity may result in strengthened neural networks that can better support later development. Further, these results reinforce the necessity of a longitudinal perspective in investigating typical or suspected atypical cognitive maturation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1189-1203
Number of pages15
JournalBrain Structure and Function
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the National Institutes of Mental Health (R01 MH087510) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. JOM is supported by a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded by the Wellcome Trust (No. 096195).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014, The Author(s).


  • Brain development
  • Cognitive maturation
  • Myelination
  • Neurodevelopment
  • White matter growth


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