Visiting a pediatrician’s office, parents often see growth charts that mark physical milestones to show how their baby is developing. But there is no such chart for brain development. Jed Elison, assistant professor of child development, hopes to change that.
Elison specializes in developmental social neuroscience, structural brain development, and autism. His research is making leaps in characterizing brain-grown trajectories in children between 3 and 24 months, an age when the foundation is laid for subsequent social and cognitive development.
“This is a time of dynamic change but also of vulnerability for maladaptive behavioral patterns,” Elison explains. “Understanding this development period in greater detail may ultimately allow us to improve the health and well-being of children.”
Ideal for the interdisciplinary
Elison joined the Institute of Child Development (ICD) in 2013 and was immediately impressed by its interdisciplinary approach to research. At ICD, he has been able to marry his interests in infant development and brain development.
“It’s an ideal environment for a developmental psychologist working across traditional disciplines,” he says.
Elison established a lab that features aspects of neuroscience, computer science, biostatistics, and clinical, cognitive, and social psychology, all integrated toward the understanding of how a child’s mind works and the brain develops.
In summer 2014, he won a grant of $2.45 million over five years from the National Institutes of Health to study early brain and behavioral development. The grant is called BRAINS—Biobehavioral Research Award for Innovative New Scientists—and it is awarded to exceptional scientists in the early stages of their careers who plan to make a long-term commitment to research that is a priority of the National Institute of Mental Health. It is propelling Elison forward as he applies breakthroughs in neuroscience to understand the rapid and complex development of babies’ brains.
“The award allows me to ask ‘risky’ questions that most people at my career stage would shy away from,” he says.
Scientists have long been studying neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s diseases in attempts to identify early signs that predict whether an individual will eventually develop these disorders. Elison is applying similar ideas to early infancy to see if it’s possible to identify patterns of brain development that may predict future risks for children. He hopes to create a chart that will diagram growth trajectories for specific brain regions, circuits, and networks and then link patterns of brain development to patterns of behavioral development.
With the BRAINS support, Elison has assembled an exceptional team combining expertise from ICD and other University units, including the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research.
A focus on autism
Elison is also a founding member of the U of M Autism Initiative, an interdisciplinary collective of researchers, educators, and providers focused on improving the lives of people with autism.
This year, Elison was named a U of M McKnight Land-Grant Professor, providing support for new professors over two-year period at a crucial point in their careers.
“Funds from the professorship will be used to foster the autism initiative,” says Elison, “creating infrastructure so it will benefit more than just me.”
Read more about Elison and his lab.
Story by Ali Lacey and Gayla Marty | Photo by Susan Andre | Spring/summer 2016