General human intelligence appears to be based on the volume of gray matter tissue in certain regions of the brain, UC Irvine College of Medicine researchers have found in the most comprehensive structural brain-scan study of intelligence to date.
The study also discovered that because these regions related to intelligence are located throughout the brain, a single “intelligence center,” such as the frontal lobe, is unlikely.
Dr. Richard Haier, professor of psychology in the Department of Pediatrics and long-time human intelligence researcher, and colleagues at UCI and the University of New Mexico used MRI to obtain structural images of the brain in 47 normal adults who also took standard intelligence quotient tests. The researchers used a technique called voxel-based morphometry to determine gray matter volume throughout the brain which they correlated to IQ scores. Study results appear on the online version of NeuroImage.
Previous research had shown that larger brains are weakly related to higher IQ, but this study is the first to demonstrate that gray matter in specific regions in the brain is more related to IQ than is overall size. Multiple brain areas are related to IQ, the UCI and UNM researchers have found, and various combinations of these areas can similarly account for IQ scores. Therefore, it is likely that a person’s mental strengths and weaknesses depend in large part on the individual pattern of gray matter across his or her brain.
“This may be why one person is quite good at mathematics and not so good at spelling, and another person, with the same IQ, has the opposite pattern of abilities,” Haier said.
While gray matter amounts are vital to intelligence levels, the researchers were surprised to find that only about 6 percent of all the gray matter in the brain appears related to IQ.
“There is a constant cascade of information being processed in the entire brain, but intelligence seems related to an efficient use of relatively few structures, where the more gray matter the better,” Haier said. “In addition, these structures that are important for intelligence are also implicated in memory, attention and language.”
The findings also suggest that the brain areas where gray matter is related to IQ show some differences between young-adult and middle-aged subjects. In middle age, more of the frontal and parietal lobes are related to IQ; less frontal and more temporal areas are related to IQ in the younger adults.
The research does not address why some people have more gray matter in some brain areas than other people, although previous research has shown the regional distribution of gray matter in humans is highly heritable. Haier and his colleagues are currently evaluating the MRI data to see if there are gender differences in IQ patterns.
Haier’s colleagues in the study include Dr. Michael T. Alkire and Kevin Head of UCI and Drs. Rex E. Jung and Ronald A. Yeo of the University of New Mexico. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development supported the study.
About the University of California, Irvine: The University of California, Irvine is a top-ranked public university dedicated to research, scholarship and community. Founded in 1965, UCI is among the fastest-growing University of California campuses, with approximately 24,000 undergraduate and graduate students and about 1,300 faculty members. The third-largest employer in dynamic Orange County, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $3 billion.
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