Brain Development & Plasticity Theme

How do genetic factors and the environment experienced by the fetus, infant and child influence brain development, adaptability and resilience?

This theme focuses on study of ‘normal’ trajectories of child development, including cognition and learning, as well as spinal chord, neuromuscular and developmental disorders, and psychiatric illnesses. The neurodevelopmental sources of children’s health disparities are examined from societal to cellular levels of analysis.

This group includes investigators from the fields of pediatric medicine, developmental and health psychology, epidemiology, cognitive neuroscience, developmental neurobiology and genetics. These investigators have produced an extensive body of work on how early childhood adversity affects the developing nervous system and how growing up in conditions of limited resources increases children’s lifelong risks for mental and physical disease.

Core Group Members

  • Dr. Neal Boerkoel - Dr. Boerkoel's research focuses on three inherited human diseases: 1) Schimke immuno-osseous dysplasia; 2) Spinocerebellar ataxia with neuropathy type 1; 
    3) A disorder of sterol metabolism regulating behavior and neural development. To understand how these genetic defects cause disease, Dr. Boerkoel and his team are using multiple approaches including biochemistry, cell biology, fruit fly genetics and mouse genetics.
    >> Medical Genetics, Faculty of Medicine, UBC

  • Dr. Michelle Demos – Epilepsy is one of the most common serious neurological disorders in children. Genetic factors have been shown to play an important role in many epilepsy disorders. Dr. Demos’s research involves collaboration with clinicians and researchers from Neurology and Medical Genetics at BC Children's Hospital. She studies the genetic causes of pediatric epilepsy, including associated genomic imbalances and familial epilepsy forms. The aim of her research is to improve diagnosis and treatment of children with genetic epilepsies. Another focus is identifying clinical features and genetic causes of rare pediatric neurogenetic disorders.     
  • Dr. Adele Diamond - Dr. Diamond's field is developmental cognitive neuroscience. With her research group, Dr. Diamond integrates behavioral, neuro-anatomical, and genetic approaches to study cognitive abilities dependent on the prefrontal cortex (PFC) from throughout life in clinical and "normal" populations. They study the neural bases, genetic and neuro-chemical modulation, environmental modification, and how these abilities can become derailed in disorders. 
    >> Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience

  • Dr. Leigh Field - Dr. Field's research group focuses on finding and characterizing genes causing several common “genetically-complex” childhood disorders, including dyslexia, autoimmune (juvenile, insulin-dependent) type 1 diabetes, and non-syndromic cleft lip with/without cleft palate. This improves understanding of the underlying biological processes that cause the disorder, which is crucial in designing therapies to prevent it. Furthermore, this helps Dr. Field and her team predict who is genetically at risk for the disorder.

  • Dr. Roger Freeman – Dr. Freeman manages the Tourette syndrome International database Consortium or "TIC". Sixty-one sites in 27 countries have been involved in the TIC and the database now holds data on over 8,000 cases. Dr. Freeman and his research group have had 5 publications, with more currently in the works. They are also finishing research on a follow-up of 41 cases of Stereotypic Movement Disorder. Dr. Freeman has been associated with the Melatonin Research Group here for many years.
    >> Tourette Confusion Blog Site 

  • Dr. Jane Garland – Depression and anxiety disorders in children are common, both causing significant suffering and disability. Dr. Garland's research focuses on understanding their nature, developing psycho-educational programs for children and their families, and investigating the effectiveness of pharmacological and psychological treatments. Research is multidisciplinary, occurs in various settings across Canada and, in some cases, at multiple sites. 

  • Dr. Deborah Giaschi – Dr. Giaschi's research focuses on visual and auditory perceptual ability development. Of particular interest is temporal processing ability. Dr. Giaschi and her research group aim to understand the normal development of the underlying brain structures that control temporal processing abilities and to discover the changes in the brain that result in temporal processing deficits, specifically amblyopia and dyslexia. 
    >> Giaschi Lab 

  • Dr. Daniel Goldowitz – The Goldowitz lab studies both single (e.g. lissencephaly) and multiple gene (e.g. autism, schizo¬phrenia) developmental disorders of the central nervous system. The research integrates the power of genomics, informatics and the mouse as an experimental model system to drive discovery about normal and abnormal brain development and to identify new therapies and interventions to improve outcomes for affected children.
    >> Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics 

  • Dr. Ruth Grunau - Dr. Grunau’s research focuses on the long term impact of early pain-related stress during the neonatal period of rapid brain development and programming of stress systems on later neurodevelopment in infants and children born very preterm. Dr. Grunau’s interdisciplinary team integrates expertise in cognitive psychology, brain imaging, genetics and stress systems to address the mechanisms and etiology of altered cognition, stress regulation and behaviour in this vulnerable population. Intrinsic to this work is addressing caregiver-infant factors than promote child resilience.

  • Dr. Suzanne Lewis - Dr. Lewis' research embraces a translational clinical genetic model to improve early diagnosis, innovative management and functional outcomes for persons and families living with autism spectrum and related neurodevelopmental conditions. Dr. Lewis leads the collaborative CFRI-based Autism SPectrum Interdisciplinary REsearch (ASPIRE) Program examining comprehensive “mind-and-body” phenomic and genomic underpinnings of autism spectrum disorders, offering new insights into the molecular etiology, syndromic relationships and outcomes of a variety of complex genetic neurodevelopmental disorders.

  • Dr. Tim Oberlander - Dr. Oberlander studies the effects of social experience (prenatal maternal mental illness and psychotropic medication exposure) on biobehavioral development during childhood. His work understanding early child development extends from molecular and genetic studies to behavioral outcomes in childhood that reflect the context in which the child lives.

  • Dr. John O’Kusky - Major research interests include developmental neurobiology and the pathogenesis of developmental disorders of the central nervous system. Dr. O'Kusky and his research team are interested in the role of insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) in the control of neurogenesis, naturally occurring neuron death and both the progressive and regressive phases of synaptogenesis in embryonic, fetal and adolescent brains. 
    >> UBC Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

  • Dr. Kathy Selby - Dr. Selby’s main areas of interest are neuromuscular disorders. The focus of her research is on Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). She is currently part of an effort to develop a Canadian Registry of children with DMD and with congenital myotonic dystrophy. She is also involved with international clinical trials of new potential treatments. In view of the fact that children with DMD are now living into adulthood, she is also establishing a protocol for a natural history study of the affected young adults, with the goal of providing the most appropriate future management. 

  • Dr. Evica Separovic – Dr. Separovic studies chromosomes and their changes in a variety of human diseases such as intellectual disability, autism and cancer. Her research group is especially interested in tiny chromosomal changes, which they study using a recently developed technology of genomic microarrays, which allows detection of microscopically invisible (or sub-microscopic) changes. The identification and accurate description of these small chromosomal changes will help the identification of new genetic causes of common human diseases. 
    >> UBC Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine 

  • Dr. Janet Werker - Dr. Werker's research focusses on describing and understanding the critical first steps in infancy that launch the process of language acquisition. She studies infants from birth to two years of age to reveal the perceptual biases humans have at the beginning of life, and how those are sculpted through maturation, experience, and development to yield the perceptual categories the child uses in language acquisition. 
    >> Infant Studies Centre