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.
“The most powerful protective system in human life is surge capacity,” says Masten. “Communities have surge capacity. Parents have surge capacity. If their kids are in trouble or there is a threat, they can up their game.”
But no one can surge indefinitely — you get depleted, and it gets harder to cope. “You have to keep renewing,” Masten says. “To keep your immune system in order, you need enough sleep and exercise. None of us are able to cope quite as well if we are exhausted. Our physical and mental selves are deeply interconnected.”
Realistic optimism is... frequently cited as an important factor in recovery from adversity. But looking on the bright side might feel too Pollyanna-ish or even inappropriate for the moment. Instead, Masten says that people should simply keep in mind that resilience during adversity is a part of the human experience. Many of the mental health frameworks and response protocols in place today were explicitly developed in response to traumas. “Resilience is a part of who we are,” she says. “It’s a part of our collective heritage, biological and psychological and also cultural. We pass down our knowledge and strategies.”
When the Prevosts heard about a study at the University of Minnesota that aims to help kids with FASD, they were eager to sign on.
U researchers believe that giving choline, a nutrient essential for brain development, during a specific timeframe could improve these kids’ memory and executive functions such as planning and organizing...
“What we’re hoping is that, by affecting these attention and memory systems early on, it allows these children then to do everything from that point forward just a little bit better,” says Jeffrey Wozniak, Ph.D., a University of Minnesota Medical School psychiatry professor and coprincipal investigator on the study. “So even if that’s 1% better, over time, with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that could be a huge change. All of development is additive, meaning that early interventions can be quite powerful in the long run.”
Graduate students in the Institute of Child Development (ICD) are educating young people about brain development and cognition through Growing Brains, a developmental neuroscience outreach program that aims to inspire children and adolescents to value science and to give them a sense of agency in their own development.
Through the program, which was started in 2017 by ICD PhD students Shreya Lakhan-Pal and Keira Leneman, volunteer developmental psychology graduate students visit learning communities in the Twin Cities metropolitan area to give 60-minute lessons about the developing brain. The curriculum covers concepts like brain structure and function, brain development across time, and how experiences can shape the brain’s developmental trajectory.
Kathleen Thomas, PhD, a professor in the Institute of Child Development (ICD), has been named director of the Institute effective July 1, 2020.
Thomas earned a PhD from ICD in 1997 and joined the faculty in 2002. Thomas directs the Cognitive Development and Neuroimaging Lab, and her research focuses on the development and neurobiological correlates of attention, learning, and memory functions during childhood and adolescence. She looks at the impact of specific life experiences on brain development and cognitive development using magnetic resonance imaging.