Brain Development Program Description

Despite much publicity in recent years that has suggested in unqualified terms that the first two or three years of life are critical in fostering healthy brain development and, in turn, healthy behavioral development, the reality is that we know very little about brain development in the human and even less about the role of experience in sculpting the developing brain. We know much less than the public has been led to believe over the past two years, and knowing as little as we do places profound constraints on our ability to intervene at an early age.

While we have data from many quarters—but notably from studies of deprivation—that clearly point to the importance of the first two to three years of life as playing a critical role in fostering healthy neural and psychological development, we have amazingly little data on exactly which aspects of experience are essential to development or how experience works itself into the structure of the developing brain. The reason for this paucity of knowledge is that there has been so little formal study, and efforts have been particularly scant in the area which focuses specifically on the relationship between brain and behavioral development. Accordingly, it is an overriding goal of this network to study the role of experience in brain development and thus to enhance our understanding of how neurobiological development and behavioral development are linked. Within this broad goal, we have identified and are targeting several specific questions (although we will not be able to devote extensive study to all of these during our three year study period).

Key Questions

  • What do we know about brain development, from the earliest macromorphological stages (e.g., the creation of the neural tube) to the development of the fine architecture of synapse formation that continues for decades after birth?
  • What is the role of experience in sculpting the brain, and can we identify the critical experiences to which, ideally, all members of our species should be exposed to facilitate and enhance normal behavioral development?
  • Can we identify critical periods of development, in which certain experiences must occur in order for development to proceed normally?
  • Conversely, can we identify instances (in either the human or animal literatures) in which some seemingly critical period has passed, with resulting deleterious consequences, but the observed deficits have then been remediated with appropriate intervention?
  • How do the experiences influencing brain development vary according to life circumstances and individual differences? For example, can we account for why two infants suffering from identical perinatal difficulties (e.g., prematurity, low birth weight) can have such different outcomes depending on life circumstances (e.g. one born into poverty, one born into a middle class family)?
  • Lastly, how can we use the information about the relation between experience and brain development to improve the lot of children in our society? For example, can we do a better job of educating educators, the media, and society at large about early experience and development, and thus provide a form of “outreach” to society as a whole? Can we use the knowledge acquired in this research program to improve our intervention programs? Finally, can we use the research tools we develop in this program to improve how we evaluate intervention programs?

In the planning of the network it was decided that the theme of early intervention would not be included as a focus of the network’s research, although the concept of intervention naturally complements the theme of plasticity. This decision was based on the insight that early intervention in itself is such an enormously complex topic that it could easily be the focus and absorb the resources of an entire major research initiative. Given the network’s temporal and budgetary restrictions, it was felt that the network could not meaningfully address early intervention at this point. Rather, the network will focus its initial efforts on the neural and behavioral mechanisms that underlie intervention and on the development of tools that may assist in the evaluation of early intervention programs, but will table for the time any active program of intervention work.

Program Plan

The network explores how knowledge of brain development can guide us in our understanding of behavioral development and vice versa. It focuses specifically on critical periods and neural plasticity, the reciprocal phenomena whereby a) the brain is deleteriously affected if certain experiences fail to exist within a certain time period and b) the brain is altered by experience at virtually any point in the life span. Here we consider not only how the structure of experience is incorporated into the structure of the brain, but also how this knowledge can influence the decisions we make about intervening in the lives of children. These goals are accomplished by building bridges between three related disciplines: developmental psychology, developmental neurobiology, and developmental/behavioral pediatrics.

The evolution of these three disciplines has unfortunately occurred in parallel, despite the fact that they all share interests in common problems (e.g., the effects of stress on brain development, behavioral development, and child health). As will be evident below, all three disciplines have enjoyed tremendous gains in recent years. Unfortunately, because there has been so little cross-fertilization among them, the gains made in one domain have not always benefited the others. Clearly, each area has the potential to drive research strategies in all the others. Yet efforts to integrate across disciplines and to develop interdisciplinary research approaches remain rare, despite their enormous utility. It is to redress this estrangement that this network has been developed.

The field of Developmental Psychology has historically been engaged in describing normal development from birth to old age. In the sub-field of child development, we now have a wealth of information on the development of perceptual, linguistic, cognitive, social, and emotional abilities across the first two decades of life. Further, we have a rich source of information on the development of parent-child relationships, as well as relationships among peers. Unfortunately, much of the research conducted in this area neglects to consider the neurobiological bases of development and the close relationship between brain development and behavioral, emotional, and social development of children. Failing to consider (let alone understand) the biological mechanisms that underlie all behavioral change and development has limited the potential of this field to contribute to a more integrated understanding of early child development.

The field of Developmental Neurobiology is primarily concerned with elucidating the cellular and molecular mechanisms that mediate the development of the brain. From this discipline we have a rich source of information on how the brain is initially formed, what biological processes guide its growth over the prenatal period, and what exogenous factors can exact a toll on brain development (e.g., prenatal exposure to alcohol). Unfortunately, the field of developmental neurobiology is not driven by seeking to understand behavior or the relationship between neurobiological and behavioral development. As a result, our insights gained from research on neurophysiological and neuroanatomical development have also been limited, and will remain so until more cross-fertilization between disciplines takes place.

Finally, the field of Developmental/Behavioral Pediatrics is concerned with the development, health and general well being of children. This field has contributed powerfully in two regards. First, our knowledge of basic aspects of development has improved in a number of domains, including nutrition, the treatment of children with disabilities, and the effects of poverty on development. Second, this field has been instrumental in shaping our society’s view of children. Yet, this branch of pediatrics has historically not been well integrated into the fields of basic child development and developmental neurobiology. As a result, the knowledge base of this discipline is skewed towards atypical development, without a true appreciation of normal development.

It should be apparent, then, that each of these three fields has, independently, had a profound impact on how we study and view child development. It would stand to reason that this impact could be magnified many times over were these fields integrated. What is required to drive progress is the establishment of formal links between the ontogeny of specific behaviors, experience, and biological changes in brain structure, or, in other words, the integration of disciplines and the “invention” of an entirely new field of study, one that focuses on such integration rather than treats it as an afterthought. Integration is required in both directions: Understanding how brain development shapes behavioral development is one; how experience modulates cellular and molecular changes during brain formation (and to some degree throughout life) is the other.

Accordingly, it is the goal of this research network to bring together experts that represent these disciplines, and to launch a unified program of research that is inherently integrated, with the aim of elucidating the role of early experience in brain-behavioral development.

Program Characteristics

The Research Network on Early Experience and Brain Development strives to be:

  • inter- and multi-disciplinary by drawing on experts from developmental psychology, developmental neurobiology, and developmental/behavioral pediatrics.
  • oriented towards the accumulation of basic knowledge of early brain and behavioral development, while at the same time
  • stressing the application of this knowledge to educators, media, and society so to ultimately improve the lot of children.
  • linked to other foundation activities, including its research programs on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, Psychopathology and Development, and Successful Paths Through Middle Childhood.

Major Areas of Study

The topic areas listed here represent activities the network endeavors to study. The activities are divided into four clusters: