Three grants totaling more than $10 million — the most recent of which was bestowed on Wednesday — were awarded to three University of Minnesota-affiliated projects working to chart brain connections in different stages of life. The three projects fall under the umbrella of the Human Connectome Project, which previously mapped the brains of healthy, college-aged people. With the new grants, researchers are looking to explore the brains of younger subjects, Infant, Child, and Adolescent brain development will be the focus of this new research.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota (UMN) and the University of North Carolina (UNC) have been awarded a $4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to launch the Baby Connectome Project (BCP).
The BCP aims to provide scientists with unprecedented information about how the human brain develops from birth through early childhood and will uncover factors contributing to healthy brain development...“This is an unprecedented effort to map the development of brain circuitries during a stage when our brains undergo highly dynamic changes that have life-long impacts on cognitive development. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to carry out this exciting project,” said Weili Lin, Ph.D., co-principal investigator of the BCP.
"Kids adopted domestically or internationally often experience a lot of early trauma before adoption. Many children adopted internationally suffer from institutional neglect. In an orphanage, they might not get one-on-one care. A lot of kids in foster care in the domestic system may have experienced multiple transitions, which can have the same effects as trauma and sometimes neglect...
At our clinic, we have managed to continue to provide care, thanks to some amazing philanthropic partners. Now we are also applying for grants to cover our costs. We are still able to see kids, but the situation is fairly sad for kids in other parts of the country who don’t have access to high-quality, low-cost medical care."
The development project led by Essa Yacoub, Ph.D., professor of radiology, and Kathleen Thomas, Ph.D., professor in the Institute of Child Development, will be the first to cover the entire age range from 5-21 years to explore the physical changes of the brain but also the changes in functional brain networks across its development.
“Developmental psychologists have long been fascinated by the wide range of functions and skills that develop across childhood and adolescence, and have been actively researching the brain systems that support these behavioral changes for many years,” said Thomas. “However, this project will be the first large-scale multi-site national study to map out brain changes across this entire age span.”
Department of Pediatrics Assistant Professor Andrew Barnes, MD, MPH, will represent the University of Minnesota’s CTSI as part of a new multi-site, multidisciplinary effort within the Clinical and Translational Science Award network to accelerate child health research across the 64-institution CTSA hub sites.
“Exposure to adverse childhood experiences like parental divorce, physical or sexual abuse, or food insecurity have been strongly associated with a host of negative outcomes, including childhood and adult behavioral disorders, cardiovascular disease, and cancer,” says Dr. Barnes. “We aim to lay the groundwork to reducing the impact of ACEs on lifelong morbidity and mortality.”
"We’re targeting the areas in the brain that are known to be the repository for emotionally charged memory...When you give an individual the opportunity to revisit their past and find those moments of light, of happy memory, it activates those areas of the brain."
An hour before the scan "we sit together in a private room and come up with five to seven happy memories. They can be anything positive and intense and relatively short. We show participants pictures of their own happy faces as a cue. Then we say, “When you see your own happy face, start uploading those happy memories.” They see the image of a thermometer when they are in the scanner. It’s a cartoon. When the targeted areas of their brain show activity, the thermometer line goes up into the green area. The goal is to move the thermometer line up by recalling happy memory and brain activity."
Dr. Michael Georgieff, Professor and Division Director of Neonatology, has been named the recipient of this year's Medical School Carole J. Bland Faculty Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award. This honor is awarded to exceptional candidates nominated by their faculty mentees in the quest to identify excellence in mentorship.
Imbalances in gut bacteria are increasingly being linked to a number of physical and mental illnesses, including neurological conditions such as depression, anxiety, autism, and Parkinson’s disease. Masonic support is enabling researchers to explore the impact of gut bacteria on early brain development. In 2015, support from the Masons enabled University faculty Dan Knights, Ph.D., Ellen Demerath, Ph.D., Cheryl Gale, M.D., Michael Georgieff, M.D., and U researcher Neely Miller to take advantage of neuroimaging and neurogenomics tools to study the tie between gut bacteria and early brain development.