Our success in understanding how early socio-emotional relationships impact on subsequent brain-behavioral development will depend to a great degree on our assessment tools. To this end a second major effort of this initiative is focused on the development of tools that permit one to forge a linkage between brain and behavior.
It is our intent to develop a class of tools that range from molecular to molar, and that are geared to particular study groups, for example, normally developing children, children with disabilities (e.g., autism), rodents, non-human primates, and so forth.
At the molecular level, our studies focus on animals and perhaps human autopsy specimens that have been equated for age and developmental history. Here the latest advances in the tools of molecular biology prove indispensable (e.g., gene knockouts; high density arrays for gene sequencing; use of viruses to perturb normal patterns of gene and protein expression).
Moving more to the systems level, our efforts focus on the development of sophisticated (and non-invasive) electrophysiological and biochemical tools that can be used with both human infants/children and monkeys. Examples of this class of tools include multi-channel (e.g., 128 electrodes) recording of the electroencephalogram (EEG) and event-related potentials (ERPs). Complementing these tools are the exploration of Magnetic Encephalography (MEG), a tool refined at Scripps Research Institute by Dr. Floyd Bloom but not yet used to study developmental phenomena. Finally, the chair of this network, Dr. Charles Nelson, and Dr. BJ Casey of the core group, have experience with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) in children. We continue these efforts, but importantly, strive to develop ways of testing children under the age of 5 years.
At the behavioral level, we are developing “marker tasks” that have been distilled from the adult cognitive neuropsychology literature and the rodent and monkey neuroscience literatures. The goal here is to adopt and/or modify for use with infants and young children behavioral tasks that have well known neural correlates. We will focus these behavioral tools specifically on attentional skills, memory, master motivation, inhibition, and emotion and emotion recognition.
Collectively and across these three levels, we hope to develop an armamentarium of tools that will permit us to study across levels and species the relation between brain and behavior. This goal will be complemented by a fourth arm of this module, which involves the study of select clinical populations of infants and young children. Two such populations we have identified for study include children with autism and children who were reared in institutionalized orphanages and then adopted by families in the United States. (The rationale for focusing on these populations is that both groups share common behavioral profiles, yet very different developmental histories.) Other populations will likely be studied as our work evolves (e.g., the development of premature infants).