By estimating a child’s capacity for working memory, scientists may soon develop an improved diagnostic for identifying developmental disorders at a younger age.

Past research has shown that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may help measure a person’s working memory, the capacity for handling information in the short-term. Now, investigators at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden say they they can in turn predict a child’s aptitude with a forecast of working memory two years into the future.

“Our results suggest that future cognitive development can be predicted from anatomical and functional information offered by MRI above and beyond that currently achieved by cognitive tests,” Ullman said in a statement. “This has wide implications for understanding the neural mechanisms of cognitive development.”

In the study, the researchers tested 62 children and adolescents ranging in age from 6 to 20 for working memory and reasoning, while simultaneously scanning the study subjects to watch the brain in real-time. After a two-year hiatus in the study, the group got back together in the laboratory for a second act, measuring brain activity in the children once again. In analyzing their data, Ullman and his colleagues found working memory to be linked to the brain’s frontal cortex during the first session of testing. Two years later, however, brain scans showed working memory linked to activity in the basal ganglia and thalamus.

Judy Illes, a neuroethicist at the University of British Columbia, said the study adds to a growing body of work in the area. “This study is another contribution to the growing body of neuroimaging research that yields insights into unraveling present and predicting future cognitive capacity in development,” she said in a statement. “However, the appreciation of this important new knowledge is simpler than its application to everyday life. How a child performs today and tomorrow relies on multiple positive and negative life events that cannot be assessed by today’s technology alone.”

Source: Ullman, Henrik, Almeida, Rita. Journal of Neuroscience. 2014.