Linking GABA and glutamate levels to cognitive skill acquisition during development

Hum Brain Mapp. 2015 Nov;36(11):4334-45. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22921. Epub 2015 Sep 9.


Developmental adjustments in the balance of excitation and inhibition are thought to constrain the plasticity of sensory areas of the cortex. It is unknown however, how changes in excitatory or inhibitory neurochemical expression (glutamate, γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA)) contribute to skill acquisition during development. Here we used single-voxel proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS) to reveal how differences in cortical glutamate vs. GABA ratios relate to face proficiency and working memory abilities in children and adults. We show that higher glutamate levels in the inferior frontal gyrus correlated positively with face processing proficiency in the children, but not the adults, an effect which was independent of age-dependent differences in underlying cortical gray matter. Moreover, we found that glutamate/GABA levels and gray matter volume are dissociated at the different maturational stages. These findings suggest that increased excitation during development is linked to neuroplasticity and the acquisition of new cognitive skills. They also offer a new, neurochemical approach to investigating the relationship between cognitive performance and brain development across the lifespan.

Keywords: cognitive development; cortical excitability; face processing; glutamate; magnetic resonance spectroscopy; working memory; γ-aminobutyric acid.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child Development / physiology*
  • Facial Recognition / physiology
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism*
  • Gray Matter / anatomy & histology
  • Gray Matter / metabolism
  • Gray Matter / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / metabolism
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Proton Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy / methods*
  • Young Adult
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism*


  • Glutamic Acid
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid