BOLD fMRI (blood oxygenation level dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging) is increasingly used to detect developmental changes of human brain function that are hypothesized to underlie the maturation of cognitive processes. BOLD signals depend on neuronal activity increasing cerebral blood flow, and are reduced by neural oxygen consumption. Thus, developmental changes of BOLD signals may not reflect altered information processing if there are concomitant changes in neurovascular coupling (the mechanism by which neuronal activity increases blood flow) or neural energy use (and hence oxygen consumption). We review how BOLD signals are generated, and explain the signalling pathways which convert neuronal activity into increased blood flow. We then summarize in broad terms the developmental changes that the brain's neural circuitry undergoes during growth from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, and present the changes in neurovascular coupling mechanisms and energy use which occur over the same period. This information provides a framework for assessing whether the BOLD changes observed during human development reflect altered cognitive processing or changes in neurovascular coupling and energy use.
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