Date of Award

2019

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Neuroscience

First Advisor

Theodore D. Satterthwaite

Second Advisor

Danielle S. Bassett

Abstract

The transition from late childhood to adulthood is characterized by refinements in brain structure and function that support the dynamic control of attention and goal-directed behavior. One broad domain of cognition that undergoes particularly protracted development is executive function, which encompasses diverse cognitive processes including working memory, inhibitory control, and task switching. Delineating how white matter architecture develops to support specialized brain circuits underlying individual differences in executive function is critical for understanding sources of risk-taking behavior and mortality during adolescence. Moreover, neuropsychiatric disorders are increasingly understood as disorders of brain development, are marked by failures of executive function, and are linked to the disruption of evolving brain connectivity.

Network theory provides a parsimonious framework for modeling how anatomical white matter pathways support synchronized fluctuations in neural activity. However, only sparse data exists regarding how the maturation of white matter architecture during human brain development supports coordinated fluctuations in neural activity underlying higher-order cognitive ability. To address this gap, we capitalize on multi-modal neuroimaging and cognitive phenotyping data collected as part of the Philadelphia Neurodevelopmental Cohort (PNC), a large community-based study of brain development.

First, diffusion tractography methods were applied to characterize how the development of structural brain network topology supports domain-specific improvements in cognitive ability (n=882, ages 8-22 years old). Second, structural connectivity and task-based functional connectivity approaches were integrated to describe how the development of anatomical constraints on functional communication support individual differences in executive function (n=727, ages 8-23 years old). Finally, the systematic impact of head motion artifact on measures of structural connectivity were characterized (n=949, ages 8-22 years old), providing important guidelines for studying the development of structural brain network architecture.

Together, this body of work expands our understanding of how developing white matter connectivity in youth supports the emergence of functionally specialized circuits underlying executive processing. As diverse types of psychopathology are increasingly linked to atypical brain maturation, these findings could collectively lead to earlier diagnosis and personalized interventions for individuals at risk for developing mental disorders.

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