Co-ordinated structural and functional covariance in the adolescent brain underlies face processing performance

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Our ability to process complex social cues presented by faces improves during adolescence. Using multivariate analyses of neuroimaging data collected longitudinally from a sample of 38 adolescents (17 males) when they were 10, 11.5, 13 and 15 years old, we tested the possibility that there exists parallel variations in the structural and functional development of neural systems supporting face processing. By combining measures of task-related functional connectivity and brain morphology, we reveal that both the structural covariance and functional connectivity among ‘distal’ nodes of the face-processing network engaged by ambiguous faces increase during this age range. Furthermore, we show that the trajectory of increasing functional connectivity between the distal nodes occurs in tandem with the development of their structural covariance. This demonstrates a tight coupling between functional and structural maturation within the face-processing network. Finally, we demonstrate that increased functional connectivity is associated with age-related improvements of face-processing performance, particularly in females. We suggest that our findings reflect greater integration among distal elements of the neural systems supporting the processing of facial expressions. This, in turn, might facilitate an enhanced extraction of social information from faces during a time when greater importance is placed on social interactions.

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