Research Networks

Research Network on Early Experience & Brain Development

This Network studied the relationship between brain and behavioral development, to clarify the role of experience in brain development and to enhance the understanding of how neurobiological development and behavioral development are linked.

Supported by MacArthur from 1998 to 2010


The network bridged three related disciplines: developmental psychology, developmental neurobiology, and various pediatric sub disciplines. Its members were drawn from these fields and included experts in behavior and biology, cognitive neuroscience, neuroimaging, molecular biology, fetal brain development, developmental disabilities, perinatal complications and biobehavioral development, and the effects of psychological trauma on infants and children.

These researchers identified several key questions awaiting answers:

  • What do we know about brain development, from fetal stages through adulthood?
  • What is the role of experience in sculpting the brain, and what critical experiences facilitate normal behavioral development?
  • Are there sensitive periods of development in which certain experiences are necessary for normal development? If these periods are missed, is remediation possible?
  • How do life circumstances influence the effects of key experiences on brain development?
  • How can we use information about experience and brain development to improve the lot of children in our society?

To examine these questions, the network organized its work into four major areas:

The effects of early experience on brain-behavioral development:  The investigators examined the developmental course of early relationships between infants and their caregivers and the effects of these relationships on brain structure and function; how responses to key early experiences serve as scaffolding for future learning; and what kinds of stimulation and support are needed for brain-behavioral development.

Comparative studies of early brain-behavior relations:  Members of the group conducted selective rearing studies in rodents and monkeys that parallel the conditions under which young children are raised — for example, the effects of being separated from caretakers at different ages. With the assessment tools the group planned to develop, they intended to conduct in-depth studies of these animals' behavior and brains.

Impact on public policy - educating educators and the media: The group recognized a need to moderate the excessive enthusiasm of those who argue that exposing infants to Mozart and Shakespeare will create brilliant musicians and writers, and to ease parental anxiety about the need to bring even more resources to children who already live in a very stimulating environment. To this end, they aimed to disseminate information on early brain-behavior development to educators, the media, and society at large.

Progress and Plans

Since its inception, the network implemented a number of pilot projects, including:

  • A groundbreaking intervention study examining the effects of institutionalization on Romanian children, and the extent to which those effects can be remediated by placing institutionalized children in a family setting (foster care). Related to this study, the Network was instrumental in launching an Institute of Child Development in Bucharest that aims to develop research and clinical expertise in addressing the special needs of post-institutionalized children in Romania.
  • A working group on dissemination of science on early childhood development. This working group eventually evolved into a free-standing organization, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, which combines developmental research and communications research to communicate science effectively to policy makers and practitioners.
  • Studies of behavior disturbances in young monkeys separated from their mothers at various ages, and related research exploring the neural substrates underlying these behaviors.
  • A study demonstrating that enriched experience increases neuroplasticity in adult barn owls.
  • New methods for examining the development of circuitry in the rat brain.
  • A study of brain areas thought to be central to social behavior in primates.
  • Development of a battery of gender-sensitive cognitive tests related to brain-behavior relationships in young children.

Network Chair

Charles A. Nelson III, Ph.D.
Professor of Pediatrics and Neuroscience, Harvard Medical School, Richard David Scott Chair of Pediatric Developmental Medicine Research, Children’s Hospital Boston
Developmental Medicine Center, Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1 Autumn Street, Office AU621, Mailbox #713, Boston, MA 02215-5365
(617) 355-0400
[email protected]

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