Classrooms, clinics and laboratories don’t provide the most romantic of settings, but sometimes close proximity and a shared passion for medicine is enough to bring people together. Such is the case for Rahel Nardos, MD, MCR, and Damien Fair, PA-C, PhD, a married faculty duo joining the University of Minnesota Medical School in different fields of medicine.
Dr. Fair is the Redleaf Endowed Director of the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain. In addition, he is a professor in the Medical School’s Department of Pediatrics and with the College of Education and Human Development’s Institute of Child Development.
Dr. Nardos joins the Medical School as an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health and is serving as a urogynecologist and director for Global Women's Health at the Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility.
Decades of research have shown that the ability to rebound from adversity — resilience — is largely rooted in feeling loved as a child and having developed secure attachments to nurturing, consistent caregivers.
But other characteristics of resilience — adopting an optimistic, flexible attitude or cultivating close personal relationships, for example — can be developed.
Ann Masten, a University of Minnesota professor who has been researching resilience since the 1970s, suggests focusing on what you can control and practicing “active coping.” That includes “capturing the pleasure of everyday life” within current constraints, perhaps by cooking a new recipe, or engaging in a ritual or celebration, as well as making future plans.
“There’s a general feeling of being overwhelmed by something out of our control, so I think it’s important to counter that on a daily basis,” she said.
The University of Minnesota proudly welcomes Damien A. Fair, PA-C, Ph.D., as the Redleaf Endowed Director of the University’s Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain (MIDB). Fair has extensive research expertise in brain imaging and cognitive neuroscience, and is renowned for his collaborative and engaging leadership.
He will also be a professor in the Institute of Child Development in the College of Education and Human Development and in the Department of Pediatrics at the Medical School.
“I’m excited to join the University’s interdisciplinary team to work collaboratively to understand how the child and adolescent brain grows and thrives, as well as to find better — and earlier — ways to identify those whose brains get off track, and design targeted interventions that are based on biological evidence,” said Fair.
Pretend play might help kids regulate their emotions and persevere through difficult, tedious or frustrating tasks. In one experiment, researchers at the University of Minnesota put a toy inside a glass lockbox and handed 4- and 6-year- olds a ring of tiny keys. Open the box, they told the kids, and you’ll be able to play with the toy.
They asked a quarter of the children to pretend to be someone else while they completed the task — Batman or an intrepid adventurer like Dora the Explorer. They even offered them props to make them feel more like that character.
Stephanie Carlson, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at the University of Minnesota who ran the experiment, and her colleagues hoped to get the kids to step outside themselves. They hypothesized that this kind of psychological distancing might help the children better manage their emotions during what turned out to be a frustrating task.
Wozniak and the University of Minnesota have dedicated a decade to trying to change the course for kids suffering from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, known as FASD.
New findings recently published in a medical journal point to promise. As part of the study, 2- to 5-year-olds prenatally exposed to alcohol began drinking a nutrient daily called choline. Now, as some turned 10, Wozniak brought them back to compare the kids taking the choline with those drinking a placebo.
“When we look further out, what we see are differences that are more pronounced, more noticeable,” Wozniak said.
Cognitive tests indicated the kids taking the choline had improvements in memory, concentration, and problem solving.
“It’s validating to see what we predicted would happen over the very long-term does seem to be happening,” Wozniak said. “This is the first step that an intervention can be powerful.”
The University of Minnesota has announced a $35 million gift from Minnesota Masonic Charities, an organization that is the University’s largest single donor. This contribution will establish and name the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain, an interdisciplinary initiative focused on the early diagnosis, prevention and treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders in early childhood and adolescence.
Led by the University’s Medical School and College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), this unique institute will bring together teams of researchers and clinicians who study how the brain grows and develops during early childhood and adolescence—formative years when the brain is most receptive to positive intervention.
“I can crack an egg with one hand,” boasts l3-year-old Hadley Lucca with a smile as wide as her face. For most of her life, Hadley has done a lot of things with just one hand. She suffered a stroke when she was a baby that significantly weakened the right side of her body. Since her mother enrolled her in a research study with University of Minnesota rehabilitation neuroscientist Bernadette Gillick, Ph.D., M.S.P.T., P.T., six years ago, Hadley has started using her right hand more frequently. That makes it a lot easier to ride her favorite horse, hone her hockey skills, and be less self-conscious about participating in all kinds of activities.
In a first-of-its-kind study designed to enhance motor skills in children who, like Hadley, have stroke-induced cerebral palsy (CP), Gillick and her team applied noninvasive brain stimulation and temporarily restrained the use of each child’s dominant hand to encourage use of the hand more affected by CP.
“[Mindful breathing is] a calming procedure that activates certain parts of the brain,” says study leader Kathryn Cullen, head of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Division of the U of M Department of Psychiatry. “We expect, over time, that it would have a positive impact on neural networks.”
While all the study volunteers practice mindful breathing, only some receive trans-cranial stimulation; this allows the researchers to determine whether the stimulation augments the effects of mindful breathing. MRI and EEG examinations will identify any adjustments that may occur in neural networks over the course of the study, clinical sessions monitor mood changes, and tests and games measure any improvement in cognitive ability.