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Relationships Between Domain-Specific Cognition and Regional Brain Structure in a Typically Developing Cohort


Human development is a dynamic, protracted process influenced by genetics, the environment, experience, and many other factors. During development, an individual develops an entirely unique neural architecture along with a unique set of cognitive skills and abilities. Through recent large-scale pediatric neuroimaging initiatives, we now have a better understanding of the protracted structural changes occurring in the developing brain. We are also beginning to map out relationships between developing brain structure and domain-specific cognition, although we haven’t fully characterized these relationships and their variability throughout typical development. The goal of this work is to assess how individual differences in regional cortical and subcortical brain structure are related to behavioral and cognitive variability in different domains during childhood and adolescence, which is a period of rapid dynamic change. This work also aims to investigate overlapping as well as distinguishing characteristics of the relationships between developing neural systems and domain-specific cognition.

In this dissertation, I focus on three cognitive domains: phonological awareness, spatial working memory, and response inhibition. These three cognitive domains are thought to involve relatively distinct brain regions and networks, allowing us to investigate the specificity of associations between structure and function in the developing brain. In addition, these three domains have been well studied in pediatric, clinical, and adult populations in behavioral and functional neuroimaging studies, leading to relatively well-defined region-specific hypotheses. Utilizing three distinct cognitive domains also supports the investigation of domain-general aspects of cognitive development, such as latent factors or skills supporting multiple areas of cognitive development. In addition, studying multiple cognitive domains allows me to study the reflection of any shared features in the neural architecture. I will first address the region-specific associations between cortical and white matter regions thought to be principally related to each cognitive domain. Following that, I will carry out a more data-driven analysis aimed at exploring possible latent factors underlying the associations between these cognitive domains and structural regions. These results may provide insight into the neurobiological correlates of cognitive development and the nature of individual difference variability during development.

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