UMN's Brain Institute Looking to Position Itself at the Forefront of Innovation

Author: Brandon Hubbard, Marketing Coordinator

The idea for the Brain Institute was founded on two concepts. First, is the concept of what is called the first thousand days.

Dr. Michael Georgieff, faculty in both the Medical School’s Department of Pediatrics and the College of Education and Development’s Institute of Child Development, explains, “The first thousand days are from conception to about two years of age. It’s this critical period when your brain is rapidly developing. Fundamental processes that underlie the memory, speed of processing, mood, affect, and more is sculpted.”

This means that maternal nutrition is just as important before the child is born as child nutrition after the birth. Additionally, the sensitivity of this time period allows for genes to become more or less expressed depending on how they’re modified by the environment.

“This could be stress, good nutrition, bad nutrition, anything,” says Dr. Georgieff.

Second, is the concept of personalized medicine.

Personalized medicine is founded on the idea that patients with the same virus can be given the same medicine and have completely different reactions to it.

Dr. Georgieff states, “We now have a better idea that in order to optimize outcomes for people, we need to think about what they each bring to the table.”

The hope is to better profile individual problems as opposed to mass diagnosis.

Now combining those two concepts, doctors find a very sculptable brain that’s developing along with a host that brings unique genetics. “You push these ideas together to say, ‘Okay, now how do we make the best outcome?’ And that’s the principle behind The Brain Institute,” explains Dr. Georgieff.

This institute represents over 40 faculty from 12 different departments in five different schools. The ultimate goal is to provide a place for collaborative research about any topic relating to brain development.

Dr. Megan Gunnar from the Institute of Child Development says, “This idea grew out of the Center for Neuro-Behavioral Development. That collaboration started about 20 years ago between the Institute of Child Development and Pediatrics.”

The Brain Institute will work with child psychiatry clinics, fetal alcohol clinics, Phenylketonuria (PKU) clinics, and general neuro-psychology clinics.

“So,” explains Dr. Georgieff, “try to put all of those things in one place where patients coming out of a clinic, for example, could then be enrolled in clinical research programs and have resources found for them by community integration people.”

With the high capacity for collaboration, Drs. Georgieff and Gunnar are looking to see the Brain Institute position itself at the forefront of innovation within research.

“The main idea here is to bring cutting edge neuroscience to human imaging and neuroscience research that shows the neurological impact of many childhood health disorders. Specifically, disorders that are not actually having the brain effects that we had previously thought,” says Dr. Gunnar.

The hope for this collaboration is to bring together faculty of different areas to speak each other’s languages and work together across campus to ultimately improve patient care. This way, researchers are able to support each other’s claims through data found in outside fields.

“There is a natural affinity between pediatrics and child development that has made the process of this collaboration very easy. Especially after the CNBD already exists and created a bridge between the College of Education and Human Development and the Medical School,” says Dr. Gunnar.

Focusing on the process of development, The Brain Institute hopes to further unveil how the brain develops and sometimes doesn’t develop. In order to provide better therapies, researchers first need to understand the biology behind it.

Dr. Georgieff says, “If we can understand why the kids got to this place, seeking help in the clinics, we could identify these issues earlier in the trajectory and next time shape the brain so that we’re seeing fewer disorders like ADHD.”

Coming up with better, earlier therapies would allow many children the chance to get back on trajectory towards healthy brain development. Protecting those first thousand days through personalized medicine will allow for the best outcomes.

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