Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Build-A-Brain Workshop

That snap-crackle-pop sound you hear around a newborn human's head is the baby's brain being assembled at an alarming rate. The manufacturing of brain cells and getting them wired into meaningful circuits in the first months of life lays a foundation for abilities – and deficits – that seem to last a lifetime. And though the program is remarkably robust, parts of it can be derailed.

A spectacularly diverse panel of Duke experts on various aspects of this process came together Wednesday in another Duke Institute of Brain Sciences workshop called "Building a Brain: Order and Disorder." I missed the order part – Fan Wang and David Fitzpatrick – but got plenty of the disorder!

Tina Williams of Psychology and Neuroscience reviewed the "sensitive period phenomenon" from her own and others' studies of rats. There is a connection between early life events and later behaviors, but the mechanics of it are a vast landscape of unknowns so far. "There may be a cascade of complex events that occur between point A and point B," she said.

Indeed, said Mohamad Mikati, chief of pediatric neurology, there is a known sequence of events when the infant brain is deprived of oxygen in whole or in part, for whatever reason, and the recovery and outcomes seem to rely on when in the developmental program the insult occurs. Sometimes a brain injury in infancy doesn't do damage directly, but leaves the brain more vulnerable to subsequent insults.

Liz Brannon of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience updated us on her work with babies' innate sense of number, and showed an adorable movie of a 6-month-old gnawing on the edge of the high chair table with his gaze snapping right and left while going through one of her protocols. Length-of-gaze is just about the only way to figure out what the little goobers are thinking about. (There was a great story in the May 3 New York Times about this.)

Before I had to go, I also caught Simon Gregory from the Center for Human Genetics talking about how improvements in genome technology are allowing him to zero in on a particular hormone system as a possible contributor to autism. It's more than genes, though: methyl groups clamped on to the backbone of DNA can control whether a gene is active or not. Your mom can do this for you and then you inherit the gene turned off. But that's epigenetics, and that's enough for a whole other symposium.

Marie Lynn Miranda from the Nicholas School reviewed the connections between lead – which is still a huge problem – and cognitive abilities. And Ted Slotkin from pharmacology and cancer biology talked about environmental contaminants, like pesticides, that are like pervasive, harmful drugs.

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